What does 'empowerment' look like? (It's probably not what you think)
So you're terrified of speaking in public? You feel like you're alone in your terror? You are NOT.
Fear of public speaking ranks more highly than fear of death in the UK.
Even if you are aware of this, I bet you're still beating yourself up because you feel you should be able to get a sentence out without turning red or stuttering. With years of experience as a public speaking coach and performer, I've observed and personally felt countless forms of 'stage fright.' I've coached Oxford University lecturers, teachers, CEOs, students, professional performers and stand-up comedians, many of whom experienced the same, debilitating fear.
I'm here to tell you help is available.
It's a natural thing to be frightened of standing up in front of other people. I'm certain it's a primal fear; when we look out and see hundreds of eyeballs staring back at us, we may feel on some instictive level we are about to be attacked by a rival tribe. Fight or flight is an understandable response to what the body perceives as a genuinely threatening scenario.
If you can't sleep the week before a presentation, I assure you many of your colleagues feel the same. Dry mouth? Racing heart? Knocking knees? Shaky legs? Sweaty palms? Cracking voice? You'd be hard pushed to find someone who hadn't had some of these symptoms before or during a speech.
'So how do I conquer the fear?' is what my clients ask me. In truth, you don't. Not completely. Not ever. (Sorry if that's not the answer you wanted!) I've never gone onstage and not been scared just before. We can't kill the fear entirely. And, actually, the adrenaline that comes with the fear is useful. It makes us more alert, more energetic, more dynamic. Does it always have to feel debilitating? No. With coaching, and increased exposure that overwhelming flood of terror can be reduced to something that feels more akin to the rush of excitement you get before going on a fast ride.
'What does empowerment look like to you?' is the question I urge clients to think about. Public speaking may scare you so much you are avoiding it completely. You might be running from presenting or pitching, speaking up at a meeting, making a suggestion, attending a job interview or attempting to tell a funny story in a social setting. If that's the case then I ask you to consider how important your voice is. You have powerful, impactful, potentially life-changing things to say.
To me, empowerment is feeling afraid and speaking up anyway.
Empowerment is not about perfection. You may have a preconceived notion that to be taken seriously at work you have to look and sound like Tony Robbins or some iteration of a 'powerful alpha male.' You don't. (And if you do, that's cool too.) There are so many ways of expressing confidence; there are myriad forms of assertiveness, and not all of them involve having a booming voice and a winning smile. I coached a soft spoken lecturer at Oxford University who worried her natural gentleness would not be taken seriously. Instead of trying to mask her unique vocal tendencies and physical mannerisms, I helped her use them to her advantage. She found a compelling, quiet assertiveness that drew her students in. An Oxford University Fellow who had always hated pitching because it seemed 'phony' and 'salesy' learned to tell the story of his product and share it with others in a way that felt meaningful and authentic to him.
As a public speaking coach, my favourite aspect of the work is helping each client find their unique expression of empowerment. What's yours?
Rachel Brady is a public speaking coach, performer (Rachel Mae Brady) and writer who lives in Brighton and works globally.