Making a Speech? My Condolences – The Five Stages of Dealing With Your Impending Presentation

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

~Jerry Seinfeld, Comedian

Regardless of why people have such a challenge with public speaking, we seem to deal with it the same way that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross describes a person’s reaction to news of their own impending death. Kübler-Ross described five stages.

  1. Denial. If you are someone who has a fear of public speaking, then your first reaction might be to deny that you actually have to go through with it. The result of this is procrastination in the hope that something will happen, some event will befall you, that will prevent you from having to make the presentation. An unused sick day perhaps?
  2. Anger. At some point you may say, “why me?”. Why was I chosen, with my busy schedule, seniority, lack of seniority, what have you. This one, if unresolved, is an absolute barrier to moving towards giving your presentation. There will always be some resentment-mostly unrealistic-that this was something done to you. As a result, your focus will be drawn away from the task at hand.
  3. Bargaining. Maybe, if I come in weekends and do some more overtime, the boss will let me out of this. Maybe if I talk to Jenkins down the hall he’ll do it for me. This may work sometimes. But chances are if you are chosen, it is because you have some experience or expertise in the matter. One way or another, one day it will catch up with you and you can wind up in front of that group of people giving a presentation that you’ve tried to slough off onto someone else instead of attacking it head-on.
  4. Depression. If not full out depression, then certainly high anxiety. Either way the effect is the same. People may spend hours in their office staring blankly – thinking about the prospect of standing in front of other people. And dreading it.
  5. Acceptance. At this point people come to terms with the fact that there will be a presentation, and it is they who will be responsible for delivering it.

As a consultant, I see the same process played out when we implement a new software solution in a company. Implementations that I work on usually represent a major change in the way things are done for the people in the company. The way people deal with change is, in many ways, the same way as people who are facing, and fearing, an impending presentation.

I’ve learned that the best way of getting people through this change is to help them reach the point of acceptance as soon as possible. This is unlike the Kubler-Ross model where things are best allowed to evolve naturally. In the case of being tasked with a presentation it is important for people to get on with it. This will maximize their ability to be comfortable once they are standing in front of an audience.

My recommendation is when you are faced with being asked to make a presentation to simply say, “I’ll get it done”. Then place that date and time in your calendar and get on with it. Because, this is going to happen anyway.

The sooner you accept it, the sooner you can start ensuring that you will be comfortable in making your presentation.

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