Leaders Need Comfort in the Skin for Public Speaking

What is often misnamed as fear of public speaking is one of the best-kept secrets of corporate leaders. It is surprising how few leaders feel really comfortable speaking in public settings and being the center of attention. Much has been written about fear of public speaking, but what I think has not been clearly understood is that the problem is not about speaking.  Nor is it about lack of expertise or not knowing one’s subject matter.

The problem is more often that a leader does not feel comfortable in the skin when standing in front of others. There is something about standing up to speak in front of a group that unnerves people you would not expect to be unnerved.

Here is an illustrative story that one of my former clients told me in August 2014.

“Last night I was invited to a VIP dinner of some top (50 or so) tech execs (I was a substitute). It was a dinner banquet-type event with CEO’s and other senior executives from the area’s top firms.  In the beginning was the din of cocktail period with these apparent stars of industry clustered in each other’s knowing glow. I knew only a few of them, so I just chatted with one guy and otherwise kept to myself. But I had that feeling of being an outsider.  Later was an interesting thing. After we all sat in our reserved seats at our round tables, we each were asked to stand up one by one, holding a microphone, and introduce ourselves. Nearly everyone looked uncomfortable. The voices of two with high sounding titles actually warbled.”

Public speaking tends to shake us down into a common humanity.   Confidence and arrogance break down as even industry stars experience the tremors of what happens when they have not learned to be comfortable in their skin in front of groups.  In the case of the tech leaders in my client’s story, those guys knew their subjects well. They were undoubtedly brilliant at what they did.  But, faced with having to introduce themselves standing up with a microphone, their bodies filled with intensity and their voices trembled.

The missing ingredient is comfort in one’s skin – that is being comfortable being who one is in front of other human beings.  Because I experienced this problem to a great degree, I have made developing comfort in your skin the first level of my work in coaching or training people for public speaking and presentation skills. The ability to be comfortable in your skin is a subtle speaking skill that can’t be learned through traditional mechanical approaches to public speaking.

The following are seven subtle speaking abilities that produce comfort in your skin:

  1. Presence – Learn to establish a sense of presence in the moment and presence that holds the center of attention. Learning to ground your energies in your physical body goes a long way to developing comfort in your skin.
  2. Breathing deeply as you speak – Learning to feel your breath deeply in your body as you speak keeps you in this moment.
  3. Risking authenticity – Learn to give yourself permission to be genuine about your inner climate so you can release the pressure of pretending to be perfect. It is OK to say you are nervous and you want to do a good job for your audience.
  4. Contain emotional and psychophysical energies in your body as you speak – Learn to feel your feelings and inner sensations while speaking rather than running away from your feelings. Relax and allow the sensations rather than contracting to avoid them.
  5. Make real connection with listeners – Learn to see people as individuals in the group and to let yourself be seen by them so you establish a sense of we are here together rather than I am up here talking at you.
  6. Think on your feet – Learn to think your thoughts at the same time you are connecting with listeners and holding the space of attention.
  7. Confidence in yourself – Know exactly what you have to offer so you know your place in the group.

Leadership presentation skills training should start with these six subtle skills before requiring participants to speak. I somehow just knew this fact intuitively when I started teaching public speaking skills. When leaders learn these skills first, speaking in front of groups becomes easy and authentic, relaxed and comfortable, connected and compelling.

If you are an emerging leader or know an emerging leader who needs to develop his or her leadership presence in order to represent the organization and grow in a career, look for ways to develop these subtle skills.  If I can help you, reach out by phone or email. Find my contact information on my website.