I stutter. Always have. You wouldn’t know it, but thankfully the mask afforded by writing shields me from a mountain of anxiety and frustration that accompanies my every utterance. But why should this matter to you? Statistically speaking, many if not most of you do not stutter. But stuttering has a lesson for us about public speaking, a critical facet in our business everyday.
The fear of public speaking plagues many in our industry. For the lucky lot who are comfortable on stage, their innate ability to overcome this fear has enabled them to be brave and even embrace the opportunity to present to an audience.
Early in my creative career at an ad agency, I invariably heard the young and talented avoid the role of presenter at all costs. The very prospect of having to stand up and face a small audience of clients was tantamount to shock therapy. Some exhibited true physiologic manifestations of fear and anxiety—beads of sweat forming followed by pale, clammy hands. Others hid it better, generously volunteering a colleague to present in their place. Some never held back and simply blurted out, “I’m not good at presenting.” Do not believe this.
Presentations play a crucial role in the business of advertising and marketing. You cannot avoid it. Regardless of role or function, you are expected to and will no doubt be faced with presenting your work and ideas. After all, presenting your information is vital to engaging your audience and maintaining their interest in what you have to say.
Surely, the anxiety that comes with fear of public speaking is real and clinically proven. Glossophobia affects millions of Americans and can also present as social phobia or social anxiety disorder.1 I don’t purport to dispute this or offer any solutions. Rather, I offer this one over-used but well-intentioned point: If I can do it, so can you.
As I advanced in my career, I learned to face and accept my impediment. I had help and inspiration from history. No doubt the challenges of popular stutterers have been romanticized by Hollywood and pop culture—The King’s Speech, most recently—yet, a point is to be made: The King himself, Moses, Winston Churchill, Jack Welch of GE, and least of which, Marilyn Monroe—they all faced the seemingly insurmountable task of speaking in public but prevailed, leaving the world with passionate performances and distinct voices.
I’ve been faced in my career with public speaking on a daily basis, holing roles from copywriter to creative director to client services. I braved each step up that scary path to the front of the room, seemingly standing alone before colleagues or clients. Fifteen years after my first client presentation, my heart still flutters as the rush of blood and anxiety flush my body. I am all too aware of the unexpected: I have little control of how my words will surface, and how they will be received.
In my career, I have presented to audiences of varying functions and levels. They have included CEOs and executives, managers and decision-makers, all of whose impression of me held the fate of my business, or in my mind, my job and reputation. Some are forgiving and patient as I stammer here and there, while others are anxious to help and finish my sentences, under the assumption that I have lost a cognitive ability to complete a thought.
Fifteen years ago, I could have balked at my first presentation and spared myself some embarrassment. Had I given in to that fear, I never would have grown and generated a passion for presenting as I do today. It doesn’t always get easier, but it does become more rewarding. Embracing the fear has made my words more meaningful, my ideas more passionate. I thank my audience for this: Without them, I would have no voice. You have something to say. Be heard.
1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th Ed.). Washington, D.C., 2013.