Organizations are changing, and so are the types of demands made by employees. With new trends toward flatter structures and a greater emphasis on individual contributors, workplaces have become more collaborative. “New ways of organizing work are evolving that unlock organizational bottlenecks and enable people to work together much more effectively,” according to a report from McKinsey, the management consultancy. “Moving beyond siloed hierarchies to a network of autonomous teams working together with transparency, trust, and collaboration offers companies a more adaptable and powerful organizing construct.” This also means that it’s not just executives, spokespersons, or public relations experts who are expected to engage in public speaking. Employees at all levels are increasingly required to articulate their thoughts and ideas, whether pitching a new concept to a team, presenting information at a company-wide all-hands meeting, or speaking at outside events.
Some staff relish the opportunity to be heard, but many others become anxious at the thought of having to speak in front of a group. According to a 2023 Gitnux Market Data Report, 75% of Americans fear speaking in public, and 40% suffer from glossophobia, a more severe social anxiety disorder related to public speaking. As employees are increasingly expected to engage with diverse teams, necessitating clearer and broader communication in both small groups and larger settings, this can affect career advancement. In a recent survey from LiveCareer, a job search resource platform, 81% of respondents said they would turn down their dream job if it involved facing their biggest fear or phobia. Moreover, 81% of respondents said their fears and phobias have negatively impacted their careers.
What is so scary about speaking in public?
So, why are so many of us nervous about speaking in public? “It’s the fear of being judged,” says Catherine Syme, a coach at Fear-less who specializes in public speaking anxiety. Once a nervous speaker, she’s now a toastmaster. She explains that our fears stem from “self-doubt mixed with the fears of people seeing our flaws.” Syme believes that everybody has experienced public speaking anxiety at some point and that many feel it’s a form of weakness.
“Shouldn’t we all acknowledge that everyone gets nervous? Why can’t we foster a supportive culture where admitting our anxieties without them being viewed as a weakness is okay?” she says, adding that empathy is key to understanding these anxieties. Companies can cultivate a more understanding and inclusive environment by reframing how we view and respond to nerves, she says. She shares a story about a client who quickly faced public speaking demands in her new job. “She couldn’t seek colleague support because such presentations were viewed as an exciting opportunity,” she says. “And I think that’s where the problem lies. We’re throwing people in at the deep end when they’re not necessarily adequately prepared for it.”
Why psychological safety matters
If staff are to feel comfortable speaking at work, they need to feel that they won’t be made fun of or laughed at – in other words, there needs to be a climate of psychological safety. “Psychological safety nurtures an environment where people feel encouraged to share creative ideas without fear of personal judgment or stepping on toes. In this kind of environment, it feels safe to share feedback with others, including negative upward feedback to leaders about where improvements or changes are needed,” according to McKinsey. This doesn’t always happen, however. According to a McKinsey Global Survey conducted during the pandemic, just 43% of respondents reported a positive climate within their team.
Jomana Elwenni, the head of people at Community.com, a software development start-up, says. “If you don’t have psychological safety already in your work culture, where employees feel open about expressing concerns or sharing ideas, it’s going to be very, very hard to get those folks to speak in public.”
Who has to be ready to speak?
It’s no surprise to hear that managers are expected to engage in public speaking more often than other employees. Elwenni says, “For a lot of managers and executives, this would likely be part of their role,” involving responsibilities such as training, speaking to executives, and representing departments. Now, however, other staff members are expected to be able to make a verbal contribution too. The individual may be required to speak about their area of expertise to diverse teams, for example, by making presentations. “No one can speak better to their work than they can,” she says. This means that everyone should be prepared to be asked to engage in public speaking eventually – no matter what their level or role in an organization.
Elwenni credits her willingness to be the face of her projects and initiatives as a significant contributor to her rapid success at a young age. She says, “Those who have quickly advanced often show that speaking up and increased exposure in meetings amplifies their visibility.” However, she points out that the impact may vary depending on “your role, your industry, and your profession.” Elwenni acknowledges that it isn’t always easy – especially for those with severe anxiety – and that it can affect career prospects. “It’s tough. If someone has severe anxiety presenting, you might hit a wall as a manager… I don’t think they should be forced to do public speaking,” she says. “Leaders should nurture individual contributors . . . they should be given the necessary support and encouragement if they’re willing to try.”
How to be happy speaking in public
If you do want to practice public speaking, Elwenni advises talking to your manager and beginning gradually, first presenting to close colleagues with whom you feel comfortable. Syme adds, “You’d be surprised how often managers support you in developing these skills. It’s about allowing people to take those gradual steps to feel comfortable.”
It can help to remember what it is like to be in the audience when someone else is speaking, says Syme. Our minds often wander to personal concerns or the day’s to-do list. “Were you critically evaluating every gesture of the speaker?” she says. “Probably not. More than likely, you were just processing what they were saying and wondering how it relates to you.” At the same time, you may have been looking at your watch, waiting for the meeting to finish. Or you may have been asking yourself: What will I say when it’s my turn? What do I need to do on the way home from work tonight? Should I be checking my messages?
In essence, we aren’t as under the microscope as we might think. “We would worry less about what people think of us if we realized how little they actually do,” Syme adds.
What if public speaking is not for you?
But what if you don’t want to improve your speaking skills? Will your career stall if you refuse to engage in public speaking? Elwenni says that, while not participating in public speaking may not be a “major blocker” to career advancement, it can “slow down your growth.”
So, are companies doing themselves a disservice if they expect all their employees to speak in public? Perhaps. While being willing to engage in public speaking seems to be required if you want to ascend to a leadership role, Syme says companies should allow for career progression that doesn’t involve extensive public speaking. At the same time, employers should offer their staff a workplace of psychological safety and the opportunity to undergo training in public speaking, “even if it’s not an opportunity they’re dying to take,” says Syme. Otherwise, employees may find their opportunities to change roles limited, which is not helpful for the business either. Elwenni and Syme both say it’s not simply about encouraging public speaking but about understanding the complex emotions behind the fear and addressing them at their core.
In an era where collaboration reigns supreme, it looks like we will all be expected to be willing to engage in public speaking when required at work. However, companies should balance the benefits of effective communication with the genuine anxieties many individuals have. The key lies not in insisting that everyone be willing to make a presentation when asked but in fostering a culture of understanding, psychological safety, and tailored support. That way, everyone benefits – including the business. According to McKinsey, “When employees feel comfortable asking for help, sharing suggestions informally, or challenging the status quo without fear of negative social consequences, organizations are more likely to innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity, and adapt well to change.”
As we navigate professional communication, it’s worth remembering that while public speaking may help one’s career, authenticity, understanding, and empathy can truly elevate an organization.
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