The Fear Factor, and the Alpha Boss

Figure out what's really behind your fear of public speaking&and don't let your boss dominate your presentation or upstage you with clients

Q: I know I should volunteer to deliver more presentations on our team's findings, but the truth is, I simply dread the process. Even thinking about being put on the spot is enough to make my stomach churn. You write about "embracing the challenge" of public speaking, but it's hard to do that when your hands shake. Any advice?

A: Know that you're far from alone; fear of public speaking ranks No. 1 on the list of people's worst fears, far ahead of even fear of death! But is that fear rational? And, even if it is, can it be overcome? Let's take a look first at why you fear getting up, whether it be in front of your peers, an outside audience, or most understandably, the boss. If it's because you don't know enough about your subject and envision fumbling for words to cover a knowledge gap, then your fear is perfectly rational—and has an element of self-preservation to it. You're simply not ready to speak until you have done your homework, prepared yourself thoroughly, and have something to say.

I often hear people say, "I don't like speaking when I don't know what I'm talking about." They say this almost in an apologetic way. But they're exactly right to hesitate to speak like that! We in the audience don't like listening to people who don't know what they're talking about either. There's simply no excuse for not doing what you need to do to prepare yourself to speak in public.

But if you do have knowledge and perspective worth sharing on a given topic, than something else might be holding you back. Many people simply fear the judgment of others. If you're one of those, try shifting the focus in your own mind from yourself and your performance to your subject—the content of what you're saying. Welcome that judgment from others, because it means you're provoking thought. You're being taken seriously. Regardless of whether people agree with what you're saying, your ability and willingness to express those ideas will gain you the respect of others.

Tell yourself (because it's true) that people want to hear what you have to say. This isn't about titles and positions; it's about confidence. If you don't have confidence in yourself in the beginning, then pour your confidence into your ideas. Public speaking is a learned skill, and you will improve with practice. Gain practice for those high-stakes presentations by starting small and keeping your presentations relatively brief. You'll be amazed at the impact you can have when you allow people to hear and see the conviction behind your ideas.

Q: I pride myself on my ability to present well before clients, and I get a lot of positive feedback from them. Unfortunately, when my area manager attends presentations with me, as is sometimes the case, he has a tendency to dominate the presentation to the point that I fear potential clients wonder what I'm doing there. I welcome his skill and knowledge, and he really does add value, but I'm often faced with clients who then want to speak with him, not me, and I'm the one supposedly in charge of their activities. Any tips for tactfully getting him to back off in presentations, or for letting these new clients know I'm the one they should come to afterward?

A: You're absolutely right to be concerned with the impression left by your subordinate role in these presentations. Your superior may be so eager to win prospective clients over that he isn't stopping to allow you to establish your own credibility with them. That's dangerous, of course, if you truly are the one with whom the client needs to have rapport.

Try speaking with your manager before the next presentation you do together, and ask for an understanding of exactly which areas you each should address. Bear in mind that this is not a workload that should be shared equally if you're to be the client's main contact. Seemingly minor details, such as who leads off the presentation and who directs questions and answers, will leave a lasting impression on a client trying to get a handle on your capabilities.

Don't defer, verbally or nonverbally, to the boss, however tempting that may be. If you hear the client say, "I'm not sure who I should direct this question to, " jump in—gracefully, of course—and at least give the answer a try before directing it to your boss, if necessary.

Make sure you outline which areas you need to address with the potential client. Let your boss know in a nondefensive way that your goal is to win a new client's trust, and urge him to let your answers stand whenever possible without additional comment. Chances are your boss shares your desire to get the client to take your authority more seriously, but just isn't realizing how his communication style is having an impact on the process. This is something relatively easy to correct if you two can have a discussion beforehand about the questions and specifics each will address. And be sure to let the client know in no uncertain terms that you'll be the one handling day-to-day operations.

If you've got a question about public speaking or about a communications issue, send it to: