In session... Susie Ashfield's client list includes Coca Cola, Rolls Royce, Unilever, Walt Disney and S&P Global Image Credit: Supplied

You must have heard of it. Perhaps experienced it, too. Glossophobia. A phobia of public speaking.

Apparently, it is something people fear more than death itself. Three in four people rank this as their top fear – way above a fear of snakes, heights and closed spaces.

For many, the thought itself of having to speak in public can leave them jelly-kneed and their stomach, a bustling lepidopterarium. But the good news for those who do experience it is that they are in the company of some famous people including Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud, Richard Branson, Nicole Kidman and Mark Zuckerberg.

A mild glossophobic, I was relieved to know that.

According to studies, the fear is pretty much the same across genders, but males are more likely to take some action to overcome the fear. That last part must have been the reason I got interested when I chanced upon a feature about Susie Ashfield. A UK-based public speaking coach and voice-over artist whose client list includes Coca Cola, Rolls Royce, Unilever, Walt Disney and S&P Global, she makes people who want to make a speech in public “look good, sound good and feel good”, the article said.

Before tasting success as a speech expert, Susie, I learnt, worked as a voiceover actor on daytime television where, apart from selling products as diverse as potatoes and pre-Raphaelite art, she also learned the power of voice, and how to harness and exploit it to make it work for one’s success.

“In a nutshell, what I do is help my clients turn complex content into something their audience will engage with and discuss long after they’ve heard the speech,” she tells me in a video interview from her office in the UK. Apart from coaching clients that include C-Suite executives, politicians and sports personalities to get over stage fright, she also works with them fine-tuning their speeches and honing their delivery styles to ensure their words have the intended effect on the audience.

Keen to glean some tips on how to get over apprehensions while on a stage, I ask her what her one top tip would be for novice speakers when addressing a group in public.

“Self-deprecation,” says Susie. “It’s such a useful tool to have. Start with this and you will have the audience on your side. Don’t come across as the person with the highest IQ in the room. Put yourself below the audience and they will like you.”

She mentions the late Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician, academic, and noted Tedx and public speaker who mastered the art of using self deprecation to get his message across. He would “make jokes about being behind the times or of being in the wrong place”.

Susie, a former insurance broker, makes it clear that when giving a speech, she would definitely not try to come across as “the most important, impressive or intelligent person in the room”.

Another tip: tell the audience how you feel. If you feel frightened or nervous, tell them that, she says. A lot of people will relate to that because they too would have felt the same when called up to speak on stage. “This could help lessen the feeling of tension you may be experiencing.”

Communication is crucial

To succeed in today’s world, experts say skills that help you communicate effectively are crucial. Great communication can help you land the job of your dreams, attract investors to back your idea or elevate your stature withing your organization, says a recent feature in the Harvard Business Review.

“The ability to communicate is as important as literacy,” underscores the qualified public speaking coach and trained theatre person who lists humility as the best lesson she learnt at drama school. “One of the things I spent a week doing was pretending to be a piece of sea weed,” she says, smiling. “That truly makes you feel very humbled.”

The second lesson she learnt was audience awareness. The audience, she insists, always comes first. But very often, speakers put themselves first. “It’s not coming from a place of ego but from nervousness,” she says.

“The first thing many speakers do as soon they get on stage is give themselves credibility- tell the audience their bio, give a rundown of their CV, qualifications they possess… That is not what the audience might want to hear first. If you want to engage with the audience, focus on what they want to hear and how they want to hear it.”

Don’t make it difficult for yourself by including everything you know in the talk. The less-is-more approach is always better Image Credit: Shutterstock

Susie also suggests being honest and open to connect with the audience. She mentions former US president Barack Obama as an example for this. “It is rare to see a political leader who has such strength and vulnerability.” A speech he made after a school shootout remains in her mind. Obama could barely get through the speech because he was crying and in this new world, we need to show our emotion, show vulnerability, she says, adding, speakers should not hesitate to use words like frustration, disappointment, scared, if they are experiencing such emotions.

Audiences relate to leaders who come across as authentic, and uncomfortable when speakers are way too confident or polished than they are, says Susie.

Overcoming stage fright

“Stage fright manifests itself in different ways in people,” says Susie, when I request her for some tips to help me overcome the butterflies-in-the-tummy feeling when speaking in public. “So, what do you experience when you walk up on stage to speak?”

Remembering the few experiences I had, I tell her that my mouth goes dry and words refuse to roll off my tongue.

“Ahh,” she says, very kindly. “Don’t worry about dry mouth. It’s something a lot of speakers experience; when we keep obsessing that it is going to happen, it will. The more you think about it, the worse the problem will become.”

The solution: accept that it will happen. Keeping a glass of water close at hand will calm your mind, plus you could sip a little if the condition is really bad. She suggests water that is at room temperature or even slightly warm; never cold.

Another tip is to pop a chewy soft sweet just to keep your mouth moist.

Apart from tips to overcome physiological issues, the trained coach also offers a few pointers to help tackle the psychological aspects of stage fright:

Take the pressure off yourself: I often find clients struggling with stage fright, holding themselves accountable to a really high level. The bar is so high they are unlikely to get there. So, if they come even slightly under the bar, they write off their performance as a failure simply because of the extremely high expectations they have for themselves. Take the pressure off by believing in yourself and remembering that you are in control of things.

Practice: Anyone who has not practiced what he plans to stand up and say is going to feel really awful doing that in front of a live audience. If you have had a couple of dry runs, just before you get on stage, you can tell yourself “I did this 10 minutes ago”, or “I did this last week and yesterday. There is no reason why the words should not come out with confidence. It doesn’t have to be as good as what I did this morning where there was no audience before me. This is just a version of what I want to say”.

Don’t expect it to be perfect: This way you are not putting yourself under huge amounts of stress and pressure. Just be confidently average; you will find that with a little bit of practice you will come through well. Very well.

If you are on stage and sweating and feeling that it is a lot of hard work, chances are that’s exactly how the audience is feeling too. Instead, ask them a few questions about what they want to know. This way it will be super easy to speak; you’ll enjoy yourself and that is good indication of how exactly the audience is feeling as well.

Common mistakes

What are the most common mistakes people commit when speaking in public? 
I ask.

“The biggest? Attempting to tell their audience every tiny detail, everything that they think is interesting about the subject. That shows disregard for the audience,” she says. The result: the audience will disengage very quickly.

Instead, take a step back and tell yourself “this is not about me or what I want to say about the subject. This is about the audience and what they want to hear”.

So, to cut to the chase. Don’t make it difficult for yourself by including everything you know in the talk. The less-is-more approach is always better, she says. Remember, the Gettysburg Address was just 272 words!

Susie, whose company Speak 2 Impact conducts communication coaching and tailored group programs including public speaking workshops for corporates as well as one-on-one sessions for individuals, says she believes in working with clients up to a stage where “ultimately I become redundant… where they don’t need me holding their hand every time”.

“That is truly fulfilling.”

Pointers on preparing a good speech

Start by asking two questions. One, why is this important to you, and your audience.

Keep asking this until you get to the true purpose of the subject. It will also help you not to drift from the purpose of the talk thus making it clear and easy for the audience to understand it immediately.

The second question: If your entire speech could be summed up in one sentence, what would it be?

The reason I get clients to ask this question is because, let’s be Honest, how much content does an audience really take away from a talk or speech? The answer: very little.

Work out what that one sentence is. So, from the intro to the middle and finally to the end of the speech, ensuring you are getting that one sentence or idea out to the your audience is paramount to the success of the speech.

Once you have answers to both those questions your speech will fall into place.

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