Want to Sharpen Your Public Speaking Skills? Begin Now!

I received a call a few weeks ago from an HR business partner at a large construction company. She was looking for someone to support the soon-to-be CEO in preparation for his first board presentation. She explained that this person needed major help with his public speaking skills because he was moving into the role of CEO and was terrified of public speaking. Apparently, he had come up from the ranks, was a seasoned, knowledgeable and well respected leader, and clearly was the perfect person for the position. But knowing that public speaking would now be a required cornerstone of his new job, he almost decided not to take it. This is not the first time I’ve heard this story. Public speaking is a big challenge for a lot of people, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a C-level executive or a new supervisor. As part of my initial assessment I spoke to the new CEO on the phone and watched a video of him speaking. It was clear to me that the HR business partner was not exaggerating the magnitude of the problem.

When I arrived on site to work with him, I found a tense and anxious man who looked exhausted from lack of sleep. He confided that he was a “train wreck.” He spent the entire weekend fretting and almost cancelled our session. He viewed me as a necessary evil and was not looking forward to working with me at all.

After talking with him and providing constant reassurance, we started with the basics. I introduced him to our concept models, showed some good, bad and funny videos, and we shared a few laughs. When it was his turn to stand up and be videotaped, he asked if he could take a short break. Over 30 minutes later he walked back in the room with no explanation. 

I proceeded to work with him on basic physical skills and helped him stop swaying and wringing his hands. Accomplishing just those two things felt like we moved a mountain. Then we worked on his vocal resonance and he learned how to pause, speak slowly and clearly and use inflection. After two days of intense coaching, he was ready for a dry run. When a small team assembled to watch his presentation, everyone was delighted at his progress, his budding confidence, and his newfound strength and ability to engage the group. He too was noticeably pleased at his success, and, when it was over he simply said, “I wish I had done this years ago!”

What keeps you from tackling those burdensome obstacles in your life? Maybe it’s a fear of failure or the belief that it will be too challenging. Perhaps you feel alone and unsupported, or maybe there is just too much going on in your life to make room for something big. At a fundamental level, you may not know how to tackle the problem or even where to begin. Whatever the reasons, the truth is that these kinds of nagging issues produce chronic anxiety and stress. Knowing you need to change something important in your life can clutter your thoughts day in and day out. It makes far more sense to stop everything and deal with the issue so that your peace of mind will return and you will feel more balanced once again.

The story of the CEO reminds me of Goethe’s famous quote:

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

So your action step is to do just one thing: be bold, brave, daring, courageous, intrepid, audacious, gallant, valiant. Boldness does not imply that you know exactly what to do to solve the problem; it just means you take a step in the direction of solving it. When you’re stuck like the CEO was, the very first step is always the most important.