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With business still not glowing for many organizations, there are a lot of reasons your company’s executives might be nervous before making professional presentations. But maybe it’s more than that.   

Could many of them simply have a growing anxiety about public speaking?

One expert says speaking anxiety at the executive level may be becoming more of an issue. Many executives don’t “have their butterflies flying in formation,” says Anett D. Grant, president of Executive Speaking, Inc., a global speaking coaching company based in Minneapolis. 

What’s the cause of this? “It’s not business pressures. Executives thrive on turning business around and making sales,” says Grant. “What is causing today’s stage fright increase is the confluence of changes in speaking demands that is hitting executives all at once.”

One change is the career leap that young “fast-trackers” are experiencing, Grant points out. With so much restructuring, rising young stars are being thrust into bigger roles and brighter spotlights. The speaking style that worked so well before suddenly seems too frazzled and frenetic. 

These executives probably feel pressured and start talking faster and faster with more and more energy until they reach the wall of anxiety, she explains. They’ve always felt extremely confident—but now suddenly they feel out of control.

Another change that’s causing speaking anxiety is the spontaneity of today’s speaking situations. 

“It’s all about now,” says Grant, “being articulate in the moment—no preparation, not even time to put together the PowerPoint presentations.” In today’s environment you have to be able to deliver compelling messages instantly—in the hallways, in meetings, in Webcasts. 

“And to add to the complexity, executives today have more and more data that comes in just minutes before key presentations and changes everything. The crutches of PowerPoint and preparation rehearsals are gone. For more executives, speaking anxiety is suddenly popping up.”

Then, too, there is the challenge of speaking to audiences addicted to e-mail, Twitter and Facebook. In every meeting today, even at the highest level, Blackberries are vibrating, ringing, and providing irresistible temptations to glance away and see what’s happening, says Grant. 

Keeping audiences engaged has never been more difficult. “The feelings of being isolated, irrelevant, and insignificant,” she says, “are giving rise to more feelings of anxiety.”

Dealing with Diversity

The diversity of today’s global business audiences also can be nerve-wracking. In the old days in American business, an executive could relax at the beginning of a presentation by telling an old boy’s club joke he’d just heard, says Grant. He would then get an audience response that made him feel better. But now the American Old Boys Club is being replaced by global audiences of men and women who may not appreciate, or even understand, the “traditional” joke opening. 

“Without that reassuring audience laugh,” Grant points out, “executives have to master their anxiety themselves—and in many cases the results are just not funny.”

And finally, one of the most significant causes of speaking anxiety is lack of training in terms of the process of speaking, Grant contends. Executives know how to put together PowerPoint presentations, where to put their hands, and how to manage eye contact. But they lack exposure to concepts and tools regarding breathing, phrasing, voice, relation, rhythmic builds, and gesturing. 

“What’s amazing is how much time executives spend working on their golf swing,” says Grant, “and how little time these executives spend mastering their speaking skills. It is no wonder anxiety is increasing.”

By Margery Weinstein – 2009
Featured in Training magazine

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