Sweaty palms, shallow breath, shaking hands and an overwhelming sense of dread. According to a recent report by the BBC, a fear of public speaking (Glossophobia) can actually limit your career prospects. However, the truth is that most individuals fear performing in front of crowds – statistics show that 74% of all people suffer speech anxiety to some level.
Communication mentor and Right Voice for You facilitator, Fiona Cutts knows first-hand the struggles associated with delivering speeches and presentations in the workplace. Now she is keen for others to understand the tools that liberated her from the panic and judgment, and allowed her to speak publicly with authenticity and confidence.
'I used to be so shy that I could scarcely say my name in public", Cutts says. 'My fear of public speaking was so intense that people would often say to me, -How are you going to make this work in the corporate world?' I did made it work, through a mixture of avoidance and sheer determination, but eventually the effort caused me to develop chronic fatigue syndrome."
The cure to Cutts' ongoing speech anxiety was revealed to her in a sudden and unexpected way. 'One day, I was spontaneously asked to present at a work conference. Right there, and then. I didn't have time to think, I just had to get up and share the information", she explains. Amazingly, Cutts delivered the presentation without any sign of anxiety.
In that moment, she realised that her fear was not an inevitable factor of her psyche. 'If you don't have time to think about what you're capable of, you find that you are capable of so much more", she remarks.
Cutts is now a Right for You facilitator, helping people all over the world to move beyond the fear of judgment, and into a more comfortable relationship with public speaking. Drawing from her personal experience, she believes it is entirely possible for anyone to become comfortable expressing themselves in front of others.
'Not only am I relaxed in front of a room full of people, I have found that I actually love speaking and singing in front of others", she remarks. 'The change has been truly miraculous for me and, now, I want to empower others to find their voice as well. I have come to understand that where people have the greatest fear, is often where they also hold the greatest capacity."
Fiona Cutts is a communications coach, linguist and facilitator for Right Voice for You, a special program by Access Consciousness. A chartered accountant, Fiona also earned a Bachelor of Arts in Modern Languages, from St Hilda's College at Oxford University. She has worked as an accountant in corporations throughout Europe, and with the Red Cross organisation, based in India. During her career, Fiona struggled intensely with public speaking and presentation delivery – an experience she now draws upon to help others liberate themselves from fear and judgment, and unleash their confident and authentic voice.
Question: Are you surprised that 74% of people have a fear of public speaking?
Fiona Cutts: I am so familiar with this statistic that it ceases to surprise me. I find it sad that so many people are suffering because of this fear. I know first-hand how debilitating and painful that can be.
Question: Can you tell us about your original fear of public speaking?
Fiona Cutts: I definitely picked up some unhelpful beliefs from my family: 'People like us are not in the limelight. We are better behind the scenes."
Beyond that, I learned as a child to conform, be quiet and do the -right thing'. All of this led to me being really shy, afraid of being seen and heard and not expressing myself at all. A lot of people who knew me well were surprised when I chose accountancy as a career. They wondered how somebody as shy and sensitive as me would fare in the corporate world.
At first, I cleverly managed to avoid most situations where I needed to talk in public. I did not, of course, avoid the anxiety, worry and fear around it.
Then came my more senior job in the charity world, working for the South Asia Regional Head Office of the Red Cross in New Delhi, India where I could not avoid it any longer. It was part of my remit to give an update on the financial situation of each country's projects at regular meetings where all the senior national and international staff in the region would be present.
These bi-annual presentations would actually ruin my whole life. I spent so much time worrying about how it was going to be and so much time berating myself for (another) poor performance afterwards.
Question: What made you realise you had to beat your fear?
Fiona Cutts: As painful as my experience in the Red Cross was, it was not enough to motivate me to beat my fear. To be honest, at that point, I did not even believe it was possible for someone like me to overcome that dread. I believed I was destined to live with this for the rest of my life. It was a serious chronic illness, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which led me on the path to overcoming my fear of public speaking. Within a year of returning home from India, I became suddenly and mysteriously ill with a fatigue illness, which was frightening and confusing.
My recovery journey led me first to energy healing, then to Access Consciousness and more recently, the tools of -Right Voice for You'.
What I learned was that it takes a lot of energy to -contain oneself'. All those decades of shutting up, pretending to be perfect and not allowing my natural joy to show had taken a toll on my body, my mind and of course, my energy levels.
Question: Are you now relaxed when speaking to a room full of people?
Fiona Cutts: Finding my voice, learning to express myself, daring to speak in front of others and finally getting myself to the point that I loved it and now enjoy empowering other people to do it, has not only been a potent part of my recovery journey, it also means that I am now relaxed when speaking in front of other people. It's something that I no longer worry about and actually really enjoy!
This is why I often say the tools of -Right Voice for You' are miraculous! Anyone who had known me in my corporate or Red Cross days would find it hard to believe the change in me!
Question: What advice do you have for the 74% of people who have a fear of public speaking?
Fiona Cutts: Here are my top five pieces of advice for you if you're one of the 74% of people who have a fear of public speaking.
1) Fear or excitement?
When you feel nervous or anxious, I suggest asking yourself 'Is this anxiety, or is this excitement?" Often, as children, our parents expect us to be afraid of things which in fact excite us. This can mean that we learn to confuse anxiety or fear with excitement. I often still get that familiar tingling in my body and now I recognise that it is excitement to be sharing what I know with my audience.
2) Handle physical symptoms
Even if you do feel excited rather than terrified, you may still have unwanted physical sensations in your body – hands or even legs shaking, sickness in your stomach. We tend to think that speaking is only about the voice. I see now that it is about the whole body. The body loves to move and a simple way of handling the build up of tension in the body is to stretch or do your favourite exercise routine before you get on stage. And when you are on stage, know that it is fine to move and walk up and down as you are delivering your presentation.
3) Stay present
If you believe you are afraid of public speaking, it's very likely that you would rather not be there giving the talk in the first place and you may find it so hard to be present with your audience that you tend to -zone out'. These two quick strategies can help you to counter that.
The first is to feel your feet on the floor, maybe deliberately having them wider apart, and then to breathe deeply into your abdomen. This makes you grounded and alert. The second is to allow your awareness to expand beyond the audience and beyond the room you are in. This allows you to be present with what is going on in the room, without being overwhelmed by it all.
4) Engage and energise your audience
Often when people give talks, they are either so nervous that they appear -neutral' and scarcely show up at all. This makes it almost impossible for the audience to hear them and engage with them. Or, in an attempt to get over this, people become overly -pushy', which tends to lead to the audience feeling defensive and resistant.
There is an alternative, which is much more compelling and interesting to your audience. It is where you -pull energy'. By this I mean that you imagine an energetic connection coming from behind your audience, through your audience, to you and through you. This has the effect of making your audience feel included, engaged, alert and often enthusiastic about what you are saying.
If this sounds mysterious or strange to you, it's actually something that a lot of great entertainers and speakers do very naturally. For you, it's a skill you can learn and develop.
5) Speak to your specific audience
It is a given that you are well prepared for your talk. You have researched your topic and are clear on what you would like to say so I won't say more about that.
However, you have so many choices on how to present your information: which parts to include, which parts to exclude. If you struggle with those details, I suggest you ask these simple questions as you are preparing your talk: 'What would be engaging and interesting to this audience? What can this audience hear?"
Asking these questions will mean that you begin to get some pointers as to which direction to go in, which words to use, which parts to leave out and which to keep in.
Question: How can Right Voice For You help Australians?
Fiona Cutts: -Right Voice for You' can help Australians become more confident with everything that relates to the voice. This can be public speaking, as we have seen here. It can also be singing, contributing to business meetings, communicating effectively with your partner or performing on stage.
I use the word confidence, as it is one we can all relate to but it actually goes beyond this. What I've learned from my own personal experiences and from facilitating this class multiple times with many different kinds of people, is that -Right Voice for You' allows you to be yourself and let your true self shine.
During a -Right Voice for You' class, the ways we think we have to be in front of people are invited to release, as are our habitual tendencies to shrink or hide. As we let go of the need to be perfect, we allow ourselves to show up. When we are actually being us, without the force, effort and pretence, a kind of magic occurs. We start to enjoy ourselves and the audience responds and is really engaged with us and what we are saying.
Beyond the class, I see all of this reflected in people's lives, both professionally and personally. People have increased confidence, they are more present in their lives and everything starts to expand and grow for them.
Question: What are your top tips for beating a fear of public speaking?
Fiona Cutts: Reject the need to be perfect: 'There is no need to be -right'. If you didn't have to get it right, if you didn't have to be perfect, how would it be?"
Keep the focus on yourself: 'Focus on what you are saying. Don't worry about what the audience is thinking about what you are saying."
Be playful: 'I had unconsciously decided that presentations were supposed to be serious. But, just before that first experience of confident speaking, I had been laughing and relaxed and I carried that fun energy and intent into the presentation."
Stay connected with the audience. 'When you are in panic mode, it's easy to turn inwards and hyper-focus on your fear and your reactions to that fear. Maintaining an emotional and energetic connection with the people around you stops you from withdrawing into yourself."
Interview by Brooke Hunter