Even the Mighty Fear Public Speaking – Find Out Why

Afraid of Public Speaking

Public SpeakingMark Suster wrote on FastCompany about entrepreneurs he calls “conference ho’s.” (Yes, he means whores.) These junket-junkies spend too much time jet setting here and there to see and be seen; or more specifically, to speak and be spoken to from behind a podium. Suster questions whether all this public exposure is of value to the entrepreneur’s company, or just to their ego. A good question.

A better question might be where Suster found these verbose, spotlight-seeking entrepreneur CEOs.

I have worked for not one, not two, not three (see where I’m going?) but four accomplished, successful, not to mention normally arrogant, self-aggrandizing, over-confident entrepreneurs who couldn’t string a sentence together when in front of a microphone.

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” – Jerry Seinfeld

Tongue Tied
One such entrepreneur boss completed a high profile, keynote address, scheduled to run for over an hour, in under twenty minutes. Oops. Another entrepreneur—who had launched multiple companies, taken half a dozen public, and preformed in the past as a successful musician—practically had to be medicated before speaking in front of a group of party-goers at a launch function. And this was a crowd who had been drinking for hours. For free! Talk about an easy audience.

Afraid of Public SpeakingIn my experience, the bolder and brasher the entrepreneur is behind the walls of his fiefdom, the bigger the phobia of public speaking. Psychotherapist Diane Hailparn explains that there are certain traits that make entrepreneurs high risk for phobias; mainly being creative and imaginative. (More on other entrepreneur phobias to come.) The entrepreneur’s overactive minds can careen down the “what if” path to negative outcomes faster than other people. And once the negative spin cycle has started, it can be hard to stop. It turns out that the same characteristics that help entrepreneurs succeed in business may cause them to fail on stage.

Type Cast
According to Dr. Paul L. Witt, assistant professor of communication studies at Texas Christian University, the way this phobia will manifest itself on stage depends on whether your entrepreneur boss falls into the category of Habituater or Sensitizer. More simply put, whether they have high or low-trait anxiety.

Sensitizers, who have high-trait anxiety, are more tightly wound in general. On stage, their internal dialogue will focus on what’s going wrong instead of what they are saying. They’ll focus on their quivering voice, or shaking hands, or a person they see who doesn’t appear interested.

Sensitizers may be so distracted by these factors that, like with my first entrepreneur example, they’ll unknowingly race through their speech or leave out large chunks of information. Worse, the speaker can become so distracted that they stop making sense.

A perfect (non-entrepreneurial) example of this is the now famous, incomprehensible speech given by Miss South Carolina.

Even if she isn’t the most brilliant gem in the tiara, it would be hard to believe that under other circumstances she couldn’t have done better. Her mind is simply too distracted, by the millions of eyes watching or maybe by the knowledge that she is failing, to focus on what she’s saying.

Sensitizers will continue to obsess and stress about the speech for hours or even days. 

Love, Hate
Habituaters, who have low-trait anxiety, will begin to relax once on stage. Once they are past the initial fear of stepping on the stage, they enjoy their time in the spotlight. My second entrepreneur example, who had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the stage, had to be dragged off in the same fashion. Habituaters will feel relief and even pride after completing their speech. But will still feel the same dread and anxiety before the next speech.

Suster ends his article by speculating that some of today’s biggest, most successful companies got that way in part because their entrepreneur CEO’s are too smart to be lured into the speaking spotlight. He suggests that Mark Zuckerberg and Mark Pincus, for example, realize they need to be focused on leading the troops, not standing in front of a microphone.

I wonder if these creative, imaginative visionaries aren’t missing from the speaking circuit simply because they are more phobic than focused.

Working for Wonka? Know this: Just because your entrepreneur boss is über-confident in some settings, don’t assume he’ll be able to perform on stage. Test the public speaking waters carefully, or your boss may be left feeling like he’s been thrown to the sharks.

(Reprint from FastCompany)

[Photo credits: microphone - Brendan Biele via Flickr, face - purplemattfish via Flickr]

4 Comments

  • elizabeth

    Reply Reply October 23, 2010

    Isn’t it interesting that the president of the United States has a full time speech writer on staff … is this because he is the ultimate entrepreneur … or simply that entrepreneurs should take his lead and source out that job??

    • admin

      Reply Reply October 25, 2010

      Hmmm. Interesting thought Elizabeth. Although it seems a politician’s job is public speaking, right? Entrepreneurs who are afraid of public speaking will have the same fear with or without a speech that’s already written.

      Ask not what your speech writer can do for you…

  • lee

    Reply Reply June 6, 2011

    Hello!!! I am not nervous but excited before a workshop/sales pitch/presentation.

    I’m sure my body is experiencing the same chemical reactions as a nervous person but my brain interprets its as excitement!!!

    I have written an interesting article about flash cards and cue cards please read and share if you like it. I believe it is the only blog written that thoroughly evalutaes thes ‘tools’

    http://leematthewmonk-maverickenglish.blogspot.com/2011/01/flash-cards-yes-or-no.

    Thanks!!!

    • Kathy Ver Eecke

      Reply Reply June 6, 2011

      Hi Lee:
      You are definitely one of the lucky ones! Good for you!

      *Your link isn’t working, feel free to resubmit it.
      Kathy

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