Being “Freaked Out” by PUBLIC
Steve Adubato, Ph.D.
I was talking with my colleague at Rutgers University--Newark,
Heidi Szymanski, the other day. Heidi is the Assistant Provost for
Administrative Services and Budget. She has been asked to make presentations
in all sorts of situations, usually dealing with budgets, cutbacks
and tough choices that have to be made. Heidi is a smart and competent
manager who should have no problem getting up and speaking in public.
But that’s not the case. Like millions of others, she is “freaked
out” by the idea of having to get up in front of others, particularly
her colleagues, to make a presentation.
Heidi shared with me exactly what causes her to freeze and have
tremendous anxiety when speaking in public. Says Heidi, “Fear.
Fear of being embarrassed and fear of failure. I am afraid that
when I get up in front of a group, I won’t know something.
The thought of having all eyes on me, whether it’s 10 or 100
pairs of eyes, makes me feel uncomfortable.” In our conversation,
Heidi revealed that often times when giving a presentation, she
cannot enjoy the moment. She confessed that she would force herself
to “get through it and manage it.”
As I thought about Heidi’s dilemma it became clear that she
was viewing her presentations in a way that was guaranteed to produce
anxiety and fear. She kept saying that she was afraid of SPEAKING
IN PUBLIC. She was seeing a presentation as solely a one-way experience
(“All eyes are on me”). What she needed to do was take
a dramatically different approach to this workplace challenge.
Heidi said she was much more comfortable engaging in a conversation
or dialogue with people as opposed to being the only one doing the
talking. Great! The key was for Heidi to see herself as more of
a facilitator of an interactive conversation as opposed to being
the SPEAKER. As Heidi thought about this approach, she immediately
took comfort in the fact that she could engage others. But then
she asked, “How can I do that if I am being asked to give
Simple. Who says a presentation has to be a one-way experience?
Who says it can’t be interactive and participatory? And why
can’t a presentation include thought-provoking questions that
get your audience involved and on board? All of these approaches
are not only acceptable, but desirable. Plus, they take some of
the pressure off of you while others are talking. Ask yourself,
would you rather be lectured to or in a conversation? The answer
One of the biggest problems is that most of us have never been
taught how to engage others. We take it for granted or assume that
a conversation will spontaneously ensue. But that’s not the
way it works in presentations. The presenter must drive the process.
For example, at her next administrators meeting, Heidi could say
to her colleagues; “I have recommended that we make cuts in
specific departments. Dr. Jones, how do you see the proposed cutback
in your department impacting the quality of educational instruction?”
Heidi should then actively listen to Dr. Jones and ask for a specific
example or clarification of what he says. She can then turn to Dr.
Smith and get his feedback on what Dr. Jones has said or raise a
new question. The idea is to keep the conversation going and focused.
Heidi Szymanski is committed to trying this new participatory approach
at the next meeting she has been asked to present. I’m betting
she is going to be great and her colleagues will not only be impressed
but they will appreciate her asking for their input. I’m also
betting she will have fun in the process. I’ll keep you posted.
Dr. Steve Adubato coaches and speaks on the subjects of communication
and leadership and is the author of the book "Speak from the
Heart." Write to him at The Star-Ledger, 1 Star-Ledger Plaza,
Newark, NJ 07102, visit his Web site at www.stand-deliver.com,
or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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