Sadly, most people would rather not talk about their speech phobias

December 10, 1992|By Cox News Service

Your heart feels like it's exploding, your hands are trembling beads of sweat are exploding on your forehead, your tongue has ballooned to twice its normal size and one thought dominates all others:

"I'm dying."

Everyone wants to go to heaven, the saying goes, but nobody wants to die to get there, unless -- you could add -- they're called on to make a speech. In that case, millions would sooner risk meeting their maker than dying like a bad comedian in front of a bunch of strangers.

Or colleagues or friends.

If the mere thought of public speaking makes you breathless, whether it's to a group of five or 500, or just a one-on-one chat with the boss, chances are you've got "speech phobia," a malady that afflicts at least 5 million Americans.

As bad as it makes you feel, it's not fatal, and what's more, it's curable.

But ignoring it could be costly, because, experts say, being able to communicate effectively, which has always been important, is an absolute must for climbing the corporate ladder in the '90s. Or maybe just to keep from falling off.

And that's true, the experts say, whether you're a hamburger flipper or a small-business owner or the chief executive officer of a multibillion-dollar corporation.

Everyone needs to be able to get his or her ideas across, but try moving up in management without being able to speak out at meetings, says Wicke Chambers, co-owner of the Atlanta speech-training firm, Speechworks.

Or if you're a salesman, it's one thing to make a one-on-one pitch, but don't expect to close hot deals if you freeze up in front of executive committees.

It's effective speakers, the experts say, who are perceived as leaders -- and perceptions can be more important than reality. Put another way, you may be an Einstein, but you're not going to get anywhere unless you can get your ideas across with ease.

The fear of public speaking, Ms. Chambers points out, has killed many a promising career. And many a manager has ended up answering to the trusted subordinate he delegated to attend a meeting or make a speech, says David Greenberg, owner of another training firm, Simply Speaking.

But it's not just a matter of advancement. Survival is at stake, too. Managers without good speaking skills are going to have a hard time hanging on to the rung they're on, warns Sandy Linver, owner ofSpeakeasy Inc., one of Atlanta's oldest training firms.

Deep down, most of us would love to be great speakers, to bask in the spotlight like a politician, to be able to make a strong case for a decent raise without heart palpitations.

But the fact is, millions of people get just as anxious when called on to talk in front of five people as they would 50 or more, says Dr. A. Ronald Seifert of the Behavioral Institute of Atlanta, a group of psychologists specializing in phobia treatment.

At least 5 million people wouldn't make a speech to save their lives, Dr. Seifert says. Forty million more hate speaking so much, they'd do almost anything to avoid it, and perhaps as many as 40 million "who speak all the time feel anxious and do not want to give a talk," he says.

But high anxiety doesn't have to be a way of life, he adds. Not every phobic needs psychological counseling, but it can help many people. A good first step, he suggests, might be to try out one of the speech-training companies or join a speech-making club.

"A lot of people have good ideas, but because they can't communicate them to their bosses, peers or subordinates aren't effective," says Janice "Sam" Sears, marketing communications manager for Southern Electric International and vice president of the Atlanta chapter of the American Society for Training and Development.

"You always find people in meetings who waste a lot of time because they can't get to the point," she says.

Dr. Seifert says many people find out to their surprise that they're more afraid of the idea of public speaking than of %J speaking itself.

Most people avoid it because it makes them anxious, "and thus do not test reality," he says. But refusing to test reality by making a speech reinforces the anxiety that is natural for everyone and can become a phobia.

Phobics suffer panic attacks -- "the fight or flight sensation," Dr. Seifert says. Many literally run away from their anxiety and

experience real physical symptoms -- chest pains, difficulty in breathing, dizziness, even nausea.

Ironically, experts say, many of the people who fear speaking most actually have the most to say.

"We work with some people in their 50s who are making a lot of money and are very successful but who feel communication is a major responsibility of their job and that just being OK isn't good enough, so they avoid it," says Ms. Linver.

But being a perfectionist can make you phobic and keep you from climbing the ladder of success.

Perhaps the best-known speech-training school, the Dale Carnegie Institute, teaches about 200,000 people a year nationally. Clients range from blue-collar workers to heads of Fortune 500 companies, according to Atlanta metropolitan manager Thomas Breazeale.

"Somebody on the front line should have the skill to talk to somebody in management and say, 'Here's a way to do it better,' " he says. "But one of the worst punishments now is to tell somebody to come in and present an idea. They get blue flu. They say, 'I'm not interested,' but it's because they don't think they have the courage to stand up and present their ideas."

Mr. Greenberg adds, "Realize it's OK to be nervous. You can be nervous and still do a wonderful job."

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