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Civil Service

Public speaking - you're not alone

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Head shot of Sean McArdell
Sean McArdell, Collective Leadership Unit, Cabinet Office

Doing the research for this blog, I found that most people fear public speaking more than a long list of phobias, including spiders, dentists, heights, and being buried alive. Some surveys even report that people fear death less than public speaking, sparking the old joke that if you attend a funeral you’d probably be more comfortable in the coffin than giving the eulogy.

I’m no exception to this fear - though I don’t want to be buried alive either. Even in front a group of friends or colleagues, the thought of standing up and presenting fills me with dread. Despite this, recently I’ve had to talk about my current policy area to large audiences. I work on improving leadership, which added to my nerves - who better to give a talk on strong, confident leadership than someone who is petrified by the thought of it?

microphone and handNevertheless, instead of fleeing to an abandoned mine until things blew over, I went through with it and spoke to three different audiences, each of around 200 people. Paradoxically, perhaps, I did this because, to some extent, I’m not a naturally confident leader. That is, I recognised that this was an area where I could develop. It’s also incredibly helpful that I have a supportive, empowering team. Even though I knew I’d be terrified, I knew that when I stood up I’d be ready, because I could trust my team to help me. That support and trust is a crucial catalyst for development.

'Effective Leaders' logoIn fact, the preparation has been the most useful aspect of this journey. It’s where I did the actual developing, rather than when I am on stage.

When I’m preparing to speak, I make sure that I involve my team, my mentor, my friends and - vitally - the event organiser. This means that I can get the audience on my side by tailoring what I say to them, even if that’s just a throwaway joke or a comment about whatever is in the news that day. I also make sure I can get feedback from the audience to review after the event, so I can use that to be better for the next event. This means that when I stand up in front of the audience it’s not so much about me and how scared I am, it’s about everyone that has fed in so far and how far I’ve come already.

Woman and man holding placards
Sean spoke at an event organised by the Health and Safety Executive to promote its Help Great Britain Work Well strategy.

Every time I speak, I’m building on wherever I got to before. My performance isn’t so much about me any more, it’s a collective representation of the accumulated audience feedback and suggestions from colleagues I’ve had so far. It’s easier to talk to an audience of hundreds when you’ve got your own mob standing behind you (figuratively).

All this makes it easier. I’m less nervous every time, knowing that I have this support network in the organisation that I’ve been drawing on.

I don’t think I’ll ever find public speaking completely comfortable. I just don’t think I have that sort of personality. But I do believe that going through the process has helped me develop and added something to the message I’m trying to get across about leadership. After all - as I’ve come to appreciate - who better to give a talk on strong, confident leadership than someone who is petrified by the very thought of it? Who, indeed!

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  1. Comment by John posted on

    All credit to you. Whatever you may think of yourself I think you are a very confident person.

    When I worked in private sector I had to regularly address top executives in major corporations, introducing the services my company could offer and answer questions afterwards. There could be an audience of upto 75 people.

    One major tip my Boss always gave me was, PREPARE. PREPARE.PREPARE. Practice in front of many different people as possible. This I did. With my peers, my family and Directors of my company. Furthermore, I was told to anticipate the type of questions i would be asked. I could then potentially prepare answers. Accept their criticism, however critical it may be.

    As I was representing the company my presentation had to be right.

    The biggest accolade I received was at a Trade Show. An open tent where visitors could come and go at anytime. We had a full house of about 200 visitors. They didn't leave and gave me a standing ovation. The postshow enquiries the company received was the highest ever.

    My point is, Preparation was the key.

    'Fail to prepare, prepare to fail'

    Sorry for patronising you, but I take my hat off to you. You are a great credit to the Civil Service.

  2. Comment by Kate Silver posted on

    Thank you for your honesty Sean. I have been privileged to watch you grow over the past few years and I was very proud to find out that you were speaking at CS Live, I also know you did it brilliantly. Anyone who looks like a brilliant public speaker is probably just as nervous as you. And will have been through the same sort of preparation (which as you rightly said, is the key).

  3. Comment by Christina Hetherington posted on

    Some great advice and suggestions. I've been a part time clinical hypnotherapist for the last 8 years and can confirm that public speaking is THE most common phobia. A good hypnotherapist can clear up this fear in a couple of sessions. If you need to give a talk/presentation and you feel particularly anxious about it then seek out some professional help. In my experience you'll be so glad you did.

  4. Comment by Chris Smith posted on

    Glad to hear I am not the only one who suffers from this phobia. I fought it myself by joining my local drama group about four years ago. I have now been in some ten plays in front of audiences of up to 150 and my confidence sepaking in front of people has improved enormously. Dealing with hecklers in pantomimes is particularly helpful!

  5. Comment by Andy posted on

    A really interesting and helpful blog - thanks Sean. I recently spoke to around 150 Year 12 students at Nottingham Trent University about my education and career. I was well-prepared and quite relaxed beforehand but when I found the audience rather unresponsive, the nerves and self-awareness kicked in! I lightened the subject by cracking a joke and that seemed to work a treat. I found the most difficult bit was the (expected) lack of response at the end after I'd asked "any questions?". Experience certainly breeds confidence though and I'd happily do it again.

  6. Comment by John Briggs posted on

    The best tip I can offer on public speaking (from my experience of being petrified) is in preparation, very much a point made in Sean McArdell's article. We way I see it is that when on stage why try and cope with both the pressure of working out what I am going to say and also how to deliver it well to that audience. Far better to split those as far as I can so that when on stage the focus is on delivery and responding to the audience.

    The point about speaking to the event organiser is also critical: the kind of interactive delivery needed for an informal circle of people over an hour is very different from the sort of large formal conference event where you have just 10 mins on stage in front of a sea of faces to get across your key messages before your time is up and they bring on the next one.

  7. Comment by Steve posted on

    The impressive aspect of this is not about overcoming the fear of speaking but the process of getting better by asking for feedback. I don't worry about speaking to an audience because only you know what you want to talk to them about. They aren't following your script so they don't know when you've added or subtracted bits. You can ad lib and adapt when you get stuck and mostly they are on your side and wanting to listen to you. Compare that to having to explain to an irate crowd some bad news about their booking or plans when you have no information or alternatives to offer or even on one on ones to deliver bad news. I have personally seen the tremendous improvements that speakers have made through feedback and practice so just keep plugging away.

  8. Comment by SANDRA posted on

    The best thing about reading this article and the replies, is now knowing I am not alone in having this phobia. Thank you to SEAN and everone who replied- there are some excellent tips there which I am going to try out !

  9. Comment by Sean McArdell posted on

    Hi everyone - thanks so much for all the comments. Sorry to Lisa and Sharon who were expecting more tips. Mine would be finding confidence in the support of others, preparation with the audience in mind and using each experience to get better for the next time. That having been said Im really pleased to see others sharing their experiences and tips. Wanted to let you know Ive read them and Im going to take them on board.

  10. Comment by Fiona Hoban posted on

    Very interesting article Sean. I thought your tips about preparation (especially talking to the event organiser), having support from your team, tailoring to your audience and getting feedback were very helpful. The point about tailoring is especially well made. When I have been on presentation training courses, I have always been told- "Audience First!"- think what they want to know, not just what you want to impart.
    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  11. Comment by Julie Close-Mitchell posted on

    Thanks Sean for sharing this with us. I agree with Dan, as a previous HMRC trainer, the 'train the trainer' course was very thorough and we went through all sorts of scenarios. This helped me when I applied to become a Methodist Local Preacher (which I've been for 7 years now) and regularly had to stand up for an hour and take a service, prepared by myself, in front of a congregation that could range in numbers from 6 to 100+, plus various ages. I now preach at least one a month and love it, I still get butterflies, but once I'm in the pulpit I use it as a performance and I have of course got all my words in front of me in case I dry up.

  12. Comment by Baz posted on

    I trend to agree with Dan over this, the first thing is preparation, have a fair idea of what you want to say, and make yourself a few notes before you start to actually write your speech, then, when you come to prepare it, rather than write it out verbatim, use bullet points, with brief "Topic Headers". Practice your speech (maybe to a few colleagues or friends) before you actually deliver it, this gives you a chance to overcome any possible awkward words, and also gives you an idea on how to pace yourself. Also if possible, try to keep it light, maybe the odd humourous remark here and there, just to take the tension out of the situation (for yourself if not the audience). Finally, the best way to deliver your speech, is to imagine you're only talking to one person, get that into your head and you'll be fine

  13. Comment by Sharon O'Steen posted on

    I agree with Lisa Fielding, I was expecting tips too! My best tip is "know your subject inside out". That gives me the confidence to speak.

  14. Comment by Stuart Browne posted on

    Sean thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings on public speaking. We have set up a public speaking group in our Sheffield Finance Hub to help colleagues practice out in a safe environment public speaking. I will share your article with the group.

  15. Comment by Carole Lubkowski posted on

    Thanks for an interesting article Sean. After years of presenting (sales/business presentations) to diverse audiences here are my top tips:
    -Check out the equipment and the room beforehand - move the furniture and adjust the lighting if necessary to make it comfortable for you and your audience.
    -Have a nice shape to the presentation: tell people what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you have told them.
    -Don't worry if you forget a key point - only you are aware of this (best tip I was ever given). You may have chance to say it in another way later in the presentation.
    -If possible save the hand outs until the end of the presentation - unless you want to be speaking to an audience who are totally absorbed in the hand out rather than your talk.
    -Say something unusual to help people sit up and remember you (careful with this one!).
    - Don't worry if someone in the audience looks disengaged. Give them good eye contact, welcome questions where possible, and they could end up being the person most 'on your side'.
    - Finally, back to Sean's article, remember that there will be people in the audience who are glad it's you up there and not them, so well done!.

  16. Comment by Caroline posted on

    Excellent article, thanks for sharing

  17. Comment by Dan posted on

    I'll second the HMRC training courses, in a previous life I became a trainer for new officers in a processing environment and received an excellent "train the trainer" event which really focused on presentation skills. When I first accepted that job, I had no idea how I was going to perform, it was dawning on me that the last time I had ever used such 'skills' was back at school and the days when we had to present something to the class (I remember one in particular about the Solar System was especially bad!). Such days would fill me with dread, to the point where I also remember feigning illness just to get out of it (if any of my teachers are reading - I'm sorry!)

    Preparation is absolutely key, and as long as you've done that, in the knowledge that whomever you are presenting to is there to listen to what you have to say, and not to judge your performance it goes a long way. The ancient cliche about the swan which appears calm and serene on the surface, but below is a confused jumble of legs splashing about, is apt.

    Some may think of it as "sink or swim" at times, and part of me concedes that may have been part of the reason my confidence built, but it's all about small steps. You could build it up for example like this:

    > First present in front of a mirror, the cat, the dog, anything that won't react. You'll feel so silly that it gets past of the initial fear of speaking outloud, if it exists. Also to confirm you are covering everything you need to say.
    > Present to just one person. If you're used to having 1-1 conversations with a manager, you're already halfway to making a success of this.
    > Present to your peers, tell them up front why you need to do it. The instant feedback received will help you to identify any areas to improve (and conversely give you the confidence that you don't appear as bad as you feel!)
    > Use positive body language, don't be afraid to use your hands etc as long as it is not distracting (try not to hold anything if you can help it, the temptation is always to fiddle - pens were my nemesis.)

    Public speaking doesn't phase me now. Not to say I don't get the occasional butterfly - but it is much more manageable. I look back on those days as one of the best jobs I ever had.

  18. Comment by Paolo posted on

    I find it much less daunting when I am speaking about a subject I am interested in. The enthusiasm shines through and that engages the audience. I recommend that presentations on 'dry' subjects should be kept short and sweet.
    Public speaking seems to be rarer these days and most of the management grades where I work have never done it and would do all they could to avoid it.

    • Replies to Paolo>

      Comment by Leah posted on

      The fear is real. However, I find myself very confident if I am conversant with the topic at hand...or very interested in the subject. It's harder when the topic is hard to understand even for you let alone deliver it to an audience!

  19. Comment by Simon Judge posted on

    Sean McArdell's article was very helpful. I agree with his emphasis on preparation. Certainly thinking about what the audience's prior level of knowledge about the subject is and their level of commitment to the subject is important as well as being clear on your purpose in giving the talk (for instance giving information or introducing a change that at least some attendees need to take on board). Building rapport with the audience in the way Sean suggests by introducing an element of facilitation to your input is very helpful too I find.

  20. Comment by Suzie posted on

    Thought this was an excellent article. Such a phobia can be very debilitating so it was great to read how Sean has managed to cope with the support of his team. I just wish I could muster up more confidence...

  21. Comment by Gary Roberts posted on

    For those who would like a guide to being an effective public speaker, I have created one that I am happy to share with my DWP colleagues. I was self-employed for a time, before joining the Civil Service, offering training in public speaking. The guide covers aspects from preparing an outline to voice modulation to fluent delivery. I have many years experience in public speaking, addressing audiences ranging in size from half a dozen to several thousand.

  22. Comment by Sanjita posted on

    Thank you for sharing this Sean, such an interesting read. Public speaking is definitely up there for me in terms of things I would rather avoid but over time I've realised the only way I'm going to overcome my fear by just getting up on the stage or in front of the room and speaking. What's the worst that could happen...

  23. Comment by Simon Frost posted on

    Very interesting article

    I can recommend attending one of HMRC's training courses as a good starting point to developing
    delivery skills.

  24. Comment by Alison Wood Overseas Cash Management Team posted on

    Sean thank you for sharing . It is indeed one of the most very dreaded tasks and draws a nervous sickness right from the bottom of your stomach. I didnt sleep for 2 days when advised I had to do a 15minute presentation at an interview and didnt know what subject it would be on. Calling on others to join in must be a great comfort factor & proves we work much more efficient as a team.
    I wish you and your team many more successful presentations. I really enjoyed your blog

  25. Comment by Mark Bayman posted on

    Best advice I received was to believe you were speaking to your grandparents ( ie pace your speech ( don't rush), speak clearly, raise your voice, keep the context simple, understandable and relevant). This advice has worked for me to and I will be using the same today when I present in front of 30 technical experts

  26. Comment by Lisa Fielding posted on

    Although this was interesting Sean, I was expecting to read some practical tips, as indicated by the initial email.

  27. Comment by Percy Thrower posted on

    I know what you mean Sean. I did my very first 'best man' speech this time last year. I wasn't exactly petrified but it was certainly something I could have happily avoided on a nice Saturday afternoon in football season. Nevertheless I prepped it, checked it, read it, re-read it, re-read it again, got someone else to read it and then delivered it. It was nowhere near as scary as I thought it would be and the repsonse from the guests from the off gave me confidence. At the end I was congratulated by quite a few guests on how good it was. Though that first glass of wine afterwards was much appreciated.