Friday, August 1, 2008

Speaking Up

Way back when, in the good old days, when psychoanalysis was thriving, Janet Malcolm wrote a great book entitled: Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession.

The book recounts the career of a distinguished New York psychoanalyst for whom Malcolm invented the pseudonym, "Aaron Green."

At a distance of nearly three decades I still recall my and, I believe, Malcolm's amazement at the fact that, for all of his years of analytic treatment, Dr. Green was afraid to speak in public.

For a psychoanalyst this is not an occupational hazard. A certain reticence might even be an advantage in such work.

But didn't it ever strike you as somewhat strange that psychoanalytic treatment, which aims specifically at helping the trainee to articulate his unconscious thoughts and feelings, should consign him to a profession where he must spend the better part of his professional work... in silence.

In any event, if a psychoanalyst is going to retain one unanalyzed symptom, this would be the symptom of choice.

More seriously, it was strange to me, even then, that the best psychoanalytic treatment had been ineffective in eliminating Dr. Green's fear of public speaking.

I recalled this issue last week when I was reading a column by the always-engaging Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times.

Kellaway posted a letter from a male manager whose inability to speak up at meetings was proving to be an obstacle to his career advancement. Acting meek and timid at meetings, choking on your words or whispering them to no one in particular... this do not improve anyone's career prospects.

In the three dozen or so replies only person recommended that this man go into therapy to discover why he was afraid to speak in public. No one suggested that he address his larger anxiety issue.

This self-selected group of people who had had the same problem or who simply wanted to be helpful... completely ignored the possibility of going into therapy.

Many of them suggested training and coaching. They offered that a speech coach, an acting coach, even a singing coach would be helpful for this man. Some recommended Yoga, especially breathing exercises, as a way to learn how to project one's voice and to assume a more confident and resonant tone. And many people mentioned a group called Toastmasters which provides people an opportunity to practice speaking in public.

After a week of such comments Kellaway offered her own solution, apparently from personal experience. It is worth quoting: "There is only one solution to your difficulty and that is to force yourself to open your mouth in meetings. If you do this often enough the nerves will eventually go away."

Some will find this advice horrifying. I consider it a breath of fresh air. A culture that traffics in the notion that you are not really cured until you have resolved all of your issues, and that imagines that once you are then the words will flow freely from the wellsprings of your authentic being, needs to hear that sometimes you just have to push yourself to do what you have to do. Not only that, but you have to do it often, until it becomes second nature, even if it does not feel very good, and even if you flub your lines every once in a while.

Kellaway has not allowed herself to be intimidated by the cultural juggernaut that routinely denounces coaching for repressing one's authentic self. If you merely want to solve the problem at hand, then you should follow Kellaway's guidelines. If you want to wallow in your emotions for years on end and still not be able to speak up in a meeting, then find a therapist and work on your issues.

Finally, Kellaway adds another piece of advice, one that she hesitated to mention because it was so obvious. She told this man to take a half-hour before each meeting to write down the points that he wanted to contribute. This is almost too obvious, but, as Kellaway notes: "almost no one plans in advance what they say at meetings."

Why would this be so? Perhaps because they belong to a cult that values spontaneity above all else. They may even believe that preparation would compromise their verbal spontaneity.

The moral of the story, is that if you follow those guidelines you are likely to veer between histrionic outbursts and pure silence.

1 comment:

Karen said...

For many, fear of public speaking ranks above the fear of death. To phrase it another way, a lot of people would rather die than speak to an audience. Is it any wonder, then, that the world’s great historical and contemporary public speakers have been among its most influential leaders. Great oratory and leadership are minority traits.

Like most others, public speaking is a skill perfected only through practice, not intellectual understanding. As one practices this skill, there are clear developmental milestones that become evident in a shift of the speaker’s focus from herself and her experience of herself as she is delivering her speech to her connection with the audience and their experience of the speaker. There are few triumphs as thrilling for a public speaker as holding an audience enraptured at the edge of their seats for the very first time.

Some people face particular challenges developing public speaking skills. In both science and finance I’ve had and have many Asian colleagues. In Asian cultures, making definitive closed-end statements is often frowned upon, yet effective public speaking frequently requires making such statements. I recently told an Asian staff member that as a reward for work well done on a complex research project he could present the results to senior management. The resulting look on his face betrayed acute unease. I plan to gently push him past that discomfort so he can reap the rewards of success.

I agree with Ms. Kellaway that the only way to master fear of public speaking is to push past one’s comfort zone and speak out with purpose. Come to think of it, it’s the only way to get better at anything worthwhile. As always, preparation is the key to success: organize your thoughts, write them out word by word, internalize (don’t memorize), and practice in front of a mirror. It helps. Some people sing in the shower. I practice my presentations in the ladies room at my office.

Reluctant public speakers should remind themselves that, in general, the audience wants them to succeed. Wouldn’t we much rather be entertained, informed, or challenged by someone interesting and confident than someone who looks like they’d rather not be there or just drones on and on in a monotone? Considering the amount of time we waste in unproductive business meetings every week, a crisp, well-delivered remark or question gives anyone a shot at saving their colleagues from death by drivel, snapping the meeting right back into focus.

I’ve been actively involved in the Toastmasters program for 18 months. Toastmasters is a worldwide organization dedicated to helping people develop communication and leadership skills, fostering self-confidence in a supportive, positive environment. It’s a highly structured, step-by-step program and, if you put your heart into it, highly effective.

I think of my local Toastmasters club as a sandbox, a place where I can experiment with speaking styles. Most importantly, it’s a place where the only consequences of failure are helpful ideas. After a few speeches, you start to look forward to owning the stage and fantasizing what you can do with it the next time. At Toastmasters, members prepare themselves to take advantage of that rare opportunity to display an unexpected ability when it suddenly presents itself.

As a result of my Toastmasters experience, the day my CEO said, “I can’t get to that conference. Karen, you’re up at bat,” my reply was, “What fun!” Now, if only public speakers would do something about their hideous Powerpoint slides, we’d really be on to something!