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You and I were focused on the fear of speaking just recently. Why so many of us dread delivering a talk or a toast, and what we can do to feel more comfortable standing up in front of a group and sharing our thoughts.
This week’s New York Times profile of their city’s new fire commissioner gave me a wry chuckle.
The knives are out for this woman in a big way.
Laura Kavanagh is wrestling with an entrenched (and overwhelmingly male) hierarchy. Grappling with resistance to her decisions, to her resume, and, it seems, to her, herself. The guys need to adjust to how she “looks and seems” is the way Kavanagh puts it.
The politics in a government position like hers can be intense, even brutal. And with all she’s facing, Kavanagh says her biggest challenge is speaking.
Yes. She told Maureen Dowd the hardest part of her job is facing the public.
The commissioner is a smart cookie though. She hired a coach. (Love that!) And she took a public speaking class at Columbia so she could get more comfortable delivering the talks that are an inevitable part of life in a government gig.
Like many reluctant speakers, Kavanagh ascribes her resistance to her temperament.
“I know people say they’re shy,” she told Dowd. “But I was intensely shy.”
It seems to make sense that the more introverted among us would be more reluctant to make themselves the center of attention long enough to give a presentation.
On the other hand, I’ve known quiet types who are excellent speakers. That’s often because they’re passionate about their subject and they genuinely want to share their information or perspective. That deep desire comes through, and audiences appreciate it.
Then there’s that unfortunate incident in the past.
You might remember my suggestion that some people dread speaking because of an episode from years ago.
“You had a terrible experience giving a speech, say, in seventh grade. Kids made fun of you, even the teacher laughed. Ever since then you’re mortified if you have to talk to a group.”
Commissioner Kavanagh was ahead of the curve! “On Instagram,” Dowd says, “She shared the story of flunking her interview for kindergarten admission because she refused to speak.”
Two things come to mind. We might need to work on resilience to keep those childhood experiences from having such a lasting impact. And, maybe we could support kids who struggle with speaking so they’re not scarred for life when they feel they’ve failed.
We can also get rid of this fig leaf.
“I don’t want to speak for the sake of speaking,” Kavanagh said in her NYT interview. “I still don’t relish it.”
Well of course. Most of us would prefer to have something worthwhile to say when we put ourselves in a position to say it.
At the same time, leaders are often called on to come up with something worthwhile to say. It’s not “speaking for the sake of speaking.” It’s that their team, department … or firefighting force … needs to hear from them.
Leading often means communicating—in words, out loud—whether we feel like it at that moment or not. We suck it up and give the speech, presentation, or eulogy because that’s what the occasion demands.
Smart leaders are ready for those occasions.
Like Laura Kavanagh, they find a coach to help them develop confidence and refine their speaking skills. Yes, I’m available, and you know how to reach me.
They also take every opportunity to practice those skills by stepping up and speaking. Introduce yourself at a networking event? Yes! Introduce someone else who’s about to speak? Absolutely! Present your latest project to the powers that be? Go for it!
The more we speak, the more masterful we become. And the less fear we have.
PS: Thanks for your hope-filled replies about my situation at home. So many good wishes in response to what I wrote last week! I’m grateful.
I don’t speak publicly in the way you’re talking about but as a yoga instructor, I can vouch for the fact that speaking in front of a group gets much easier with practice. I still have some butterflies when it’s a new class or situation but it’s nothing compared to what it used to be. Confidence, the belief that you can do it well, is important.
Have Catherine teach you how to speak, make sure you know your subject matter and practice at every opportunity!
Teaching a class of any sort counts as public speaking, Linda. And a lot of teachers could use a few pointers about how to command a room and connect with their audience — the eager learners and the ones who’d rather be someplace else.
You’re right about confidence. We get better at the craft of speaking as our confidence grows.