An Executive Coach’s Fear of Public Speaking

Linda was a busy executive coach who had to conduct seminars and give presentations to company executives. But her terrible fear of public speaking was severely affecting her professional prospects. She came to see me, asking me to save her career.

I asked her how she managed at a job that demanded so much public speaking. She told me that her phobia was nothing new. As long as she remembered she had had a fear of public speaking. Her strategy was to avoid it as much as possible. To this end she worked with a business partner who did the talking, allowing Linda tow work behind the scenes doing the research.

While her work was satisfying and her partnership had been successful, ultimately she was not happy because she really wanted to be able to give presentations herself. Linda told me that she had tried relaxation and breathing exercises to overcome her fear. She had also tried to practice the talk and to know the material so well that it was almost all committed to memory. Another one of her coping strategies was to convince herself that her fear was irrational and that in reality there was nothing to be afraid of. However, none of these solutions had worked. Which is why she had come to me for help.

After listening to her story, I looked into her eyes and told her that avoided fear turns into a phobia because the more you run away from theses ghosts and gremlins, the stronger they become. By avoiding them you actually feed them ‘fresh meat’ and make them grow stronger. While she was listening to this imagery, she was motionless and attentive. Tears started to run down her cheeks.

After wiping away her tears she took a deep breath and asked: “You mean I have to force myself to give presentations?” I explained to her that simply forcing herself to be in a fear inducing situation before she had overcome her fear of public speaking would not be helpful. Exposure techniques are not the most effective way to rid yourself of a phobia.

Instead, I gave her a specific exercise to practice every day. I explained to her that the aim of the task was for her to avoid her well honed avoidance strategies. Moreover, this exercise would help her conquer her fear.

Understandably, Linda was skeptical. After all, she had already tried so many different things and heard so much advice and suggestions. But Linda and her business partner had to give presentations and talks on a regular basis. As a matter of fact, there was a presentation scheduled for the following week that Linda had researched and prepared. She had all the material ready and really wished that she could be the one giving the presentation. As well as the exercise mentioned before, I also taught Linda a technique to calm herself just before the talk, in case she needed it. With these new techniques she agreed to give it a try.

Two weeks later, at our appointed follow-up session Linda came back to see me. She reported that every day she put the exercises I had given her into practice. She also thought about the image of throwing fresh meat to the beasts of fear whenever she found herself avoiding an occasion to talk in front of an audience.

She reported that in just four days, she had started to feel more confident about giving the talk. On the actual day of the presentation, she was very excited. But a few minutes just before the talk she had suddenly felt butterflies in the pit of her stomach. However, Linda had immediately remembered that I had explained that those butterflies were normal because even the best surgeons or opera singers feel them before a surgery or a public performance.

She was very happy and excited because she had finally been able to reach her goal and give a presentation without being overwhelmed by fear. I was happy to see the twinkle in her eye and knew that it meant a great deal to Linda to be able to step out of the shadows and be able to present her well researched work herself.