January 10, 2017

How I overcame my fear of speaking to groups

During a recent training course we asked participants to do an exercise which we call 'What have you learned?' In this exercise we ask them to talk, in duo's, about something which they once doubted they could ever get better at but which they eventually did get better at. With the help of some questions they talked about what that thing was at which they got better against their own expectation and how they were able to get better. This exercise is an example of a self persuasion technique (read more).

It is often interesting to learn how people have managed to get better at those things. Some time ago, they mentioned things like: "I kept trying anyway because someone believed in me", "I focused on small steps", and "I received help".  As I listened to the plenary discussion at the end of this exercise, which was led by my colleague Gwenda Schlundt Bodien, I thought about something I got better at while I once doubted whether I would ever be able to get better at it. That subject is speaking to groups.

As a high school student I found myself so bad at speaking to groups that I once called in sick when I had to hold a talk at school. If someone, back then, had told me that my work would once be to stand in front of groups multiple times a week I would think that person was insane. If there would be one thing I would probably try to avoid having to do in my profession it would probably be that.

But that person would have been right because I am frequently speaking to groups and I am even enjoying it. I think I have become better at it than I would ever have considered possible. How I did it? What has helped in my case is how my first mentor, Martin Greuter (photo) guided me. He was a well-know selection psychologist who worked on some innovative topics and he was my most important reason for wanting to work at that firm.

I worked there for maybe half a year when Martin told me he was asked to give a lecture at a conference. The topic of the lecture was bias in personnel selection. Martin told me he was unable to attend the congress for some personal reason and that I should replace him. After I realized he wasn't joking I succeeded reasonably well in hiding a burst of fear that hid me. I mumbled that I certainly could not replace him because I had never even lectured before.

Martin looked at me friendly but determined and said that he thought I would be able to do just fine. We talked a bit longer, perhaps two minutes. As an industrious student I certainly did know a thing or two about the subject but I found the idea of having to lecture at a conference ridiculous. When Martin told me there would be about 100 people in the audience, I knew for sure that he had lost his mind. Then Martin stood up and walked to the door. With a smile he said: "I think you'll do well and that it will be a very interesting lecture." Then, he walked out the door and left me surprised and a bit angry.

I prepared the lecture and I gave it. There were indeed many people in the audience. I was quite nervous but it went rather well. Afterwards someone came up to me and told me he found my lecture very interesting. I learned a lot from this first experience with speaking to groups and I actually enjoyed it.

Martin has played a big role in this by his clear and determined expectation of me. At the same time he clearly conveyed the confidence he had in me to do the job well. The combination of these two things made me do it. Although I would have never thought I could do this, he apparently did.

This happened about 25 years ago. Now, I can hardly imagine how I could have ever been so scared of speaking to groups.

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