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The Boston Globe

Conquering fear of public speaking is crucial

Presentation skills are a crucial part of business, so it pays to overcome fears

By Alan Earls, Globe Correspondent, 2/1/04

Illustration/Chris Sharp

Seda Karsit, 26, never thought of herself as having stage fright - until she had to give a speech to her college graduating class. The symptoms - talking too quickly and a quavering voice - showed up again when she had to deliver a client presentation at her last job.

But when she took a sales position at Fleet's Capital Market department the problem became a front-burner issue that required resolution.

''I work with people all the time. I travel a lot more and make presentations both internally and to clients,'' she said.

Karsit said when she discovered how difficult presentations could be in front of a large crowd she decided to take steps to give herself new capabilities and confidence ''that will take me to that next step in a leadership role.''

Karsit is not alone in having problems with public speaking. Polls have shown that speaking in front of an audience is one of the greatest sources of anxiety for Americans, said Marcie Schorr Hirsch, principal of Hirsch/Hills Associates, a Newton-based management consulting firm.

''Many people are caught in the crossfire between their fear and the fact that many employers expect them to demonstrate public speaking skills,'' said Schorr Hirsch. ''Even if your current job doesn't demand presentation skills, odds are good you'll need them in your next job.''

Presentation skills, whether for formal events or informal discussions, are valued in business, said Schorr Hirsch.

''When I talk to almost every organization we work with, they list communications as one of their most critical issues - and presentation skills are a large component of communications,'' she said. In fact, she noted, presentation skills are crucial to almost every facet of business life, from client meetings to interviews to trade shows.

''People don't realize how important this is - leadership and presentation skills go hand in hand,'' said Robin Lucier, the HR director at B.L. Makepeace Inc., a Brighton vendor of engineering and surveying supplies and equipment.

For those determined to improve their speaking skills, the options range from boutique courses to established, low-cost self-help programs.

Karsit helped conquer her fear through a self-help program offered through Boston Toastmasters, an affiliate of Toastmasters International (www.toastmasters.org), an organization devoted to improving speaking skills.

Although Karsit describes the process as ''the beginning of a long journey,'' she said that her participation in the group has brought about an obvious improvement in her communication and presentation skills.

''I am not only a better public speaker, but also a better listener,'' she said. ''I am determined to continue bettering those skills.''

Tony Pinto, a software engineer for IBM in Boston, says what he learned through Toastmasters was crucial to helping him advance in his previous job - and still is helpful today.

''Toastmasters is especially great for technical people because many of us never go through that kind of training,'' he said.

The group provides a very supportive environment ''where people can actually make mistakes,'' he said. There is also an ongoing evaluation and improvement process through which, after making 10 speeches lasting five to seven minutes, individuals can earn the CTM - Competent Toast Master - designation.

Allison M. Greenspan, information officer at the Consulate General of Israel in Boston and president of Boston Toastmasters, says her presentation skills needed a boost when she joined the group. She now gives one or two 15-to-20-minute speeches per month about Israel, as well as more frequent one- or two-minute presentations at other events.

''No matter what kind of day you're having . . . you can't say to the audience, 'I'm sorry, I will give you a sub-optimal speech today because I'm not feeling well,' '' she noted.

But for some people, self-help isn't enough - they want or need the attention provided by a formal course or a dedicated coach.

Dennis Becker, a consultant and coach at the Speech Improvement Company, a Brookline training firm, says discomfort with public speaking is very common. Many of his clients are referred by their employers, Becker said.

Indeed, every speaker at the recent Lotusphere computer software trade show in Orlando, Fla., was coached by Becker's company. However, he stresses that learning to be an effective speaker isn't as difficult as many people think.

''In fact, we are presenting whenever we are with other people,'' he said. ''We emphasize that those same personal skills are at the heart of speaking effectively to larger groups.''

The need to improve one-on-one communications is also important, he said. For instance, the company began offering free classes focused on job interviewing skills in an effort to help job hunters grappling with the difficult economy.

''The response has been overwhelming,'' said Becker. Originally designed as an occasional program, the sessions have been repeated almost 50 times, he said.

For Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Bedford, and author of two books on combat stress and Vietnam veterans, the challenge was different. Shay is comfortable with public speaking. But he wanted his words to be effective.

''When I speak on radio or TV, to audiences at universities or to the military,'' he explained, ''I'm on a mission.''

He felt his delivery just wasn't good enough. ''I was always pausing and trying to search for the right words,'' he said.

Eliza Bergeson, a practitioner of kinesiology and educational kinesthetics - techniques that work to unite the body and mind - helped Shay develop specific exercises that he said have made him much smoother and more effective.

Shay said he is now able to stay calm and focused whether speaking to a general audience or a roomful of generals at the Pentagon.

''It must be working, because they keep inviting me back,'' he said.

Bergeson and business partner Trice Atkinson operate a training company called Heartworks Coaching Inc. in Cornish Flat, N.H.

''We are working at bringing a person into balance so that there is emotional equanimity, mental clarity, and physical coordination,'' she said. With those ingredients in place, Bergeson added, ''People can speak easily and naturally and move in a fluid way.''

That, of course, is the ultimate goal, noted Richard McGrail, a mechanical engineer at Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems in Sudbury, and a member of the company's Toastmaster chapter.

''You only have one chance to make first impressions,'' said McGrail. ''Having good presentation skills allows you to make the most of that chance.''

Alan Earls is a freelance writer.

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