Dear Dr. Hurd:
When I find myself in a position to explain my new business to a crowd or to individuals, my preparation often fails me and I struggle to communicate my most ingrained concepts. The word that I can best use to describe this is “crippling.”
I am an extroverted person, especially around people and friends with whom I’m comfortable. But when it comes time to stake my professional reputation with people whose respect I need to earn, I end up conveying insecurity and doubt instead of passion, vigor, and knowledge.
I think I know why this is. Far too routinely, I believe that my future will be determined solely by the decisions of people who can afford to give me opportunities and investments. I tell myself that once again, this is my moment in the spotlight, the chance to make my envisioned future become reality, and I better not screw it up. Of course, that’s exactly what I do. Fumbling for not just words, but ideas to further dialogue, entire concepts become temporarily brainwashed out of my consciousness and are replaced by a paralyzing pressure to impress.
With my personal future hanging on the outcome of these conversations, I’m succumbing to the fear of rejection and diluting every salient point that would otherwise be convincing. I end up ensuring the exact opposite reaction to my desired outcome. Once, in front of a large crowd (as opposed to usual small groups of 3 or 4), I received this revolting, motherly pity from a sympathetic member of the crowd: “Good job, you were great up there,” she said, when I had all the eloquence of a fraught actor stumbling through his lines. I never want to be that embarrassed about something I take so seriously. This is not just a hobby. I’ve risked everything for this business to succeed. It’s my life. Or at least I want it to be.
Dr. Hurd’s reply:
You’re asking two things here. One, how to be less anxious. Two, how to be a more glib speaker. The second is not a psychological issue; the first is.
If you reduce your anxiety, then the way is paved to becoming a better speaker. You can read or discover those principles elsewhere — how to engage an audience, and so forth. But if you reduce your anxiety, you might find that you don’t necessarily need to be such a good speaker.
Regarding your anxiety, what’s causing it? Anxiety is caused by false or exaggerated beliefs. Here are the false beliefs I detected in what you described:
Error # 1: “Everything depends on this moment when I’m speaking.”
Not so. Your business depends on a lot of things. It depends on the quality of your product or service. It depends on your responsiveness and friendliness to customers. It depends on consistency — that’s very important. It depends on integrity and honesty; the basis for reputation.
If you were a magnificent speaker, but your business fell short on consistency, integrity and quality, it would ultimately spell disaster for your business. This proves that being a great speaker, while valuable, is not the only thing needed for success.
Your emotions tell you that this one conversation or speech is everything. A conversation can be important, but it’s not everything. The more you believe it’s everything, the more nervous you will be, and that’s precisely what’s happening.
Error # 2: “Convincing others is the most important means of selling my product.”
Actually, not so. Convincing yourself is the most important means of selling your product. Once you’re honestly and totally convinced you have something worthwhile, then you’re capable of selling it to another.
Of course, having a worthwhile product or service is not enough. That product or service must be worthwhile to others. The challenge is to convince them that it is, or at least raise the possibility. “I’m selling X. X is of the highest quality, and I can prove it. I can also prove why you need X.” Maybe they already know they need X, in which case your job is to persuade them, “This is why you will benefit by buying X from me, as opposed to someone else.”
An excellent book (based on a course) by philosopher Dr. Leonard Peikoff (“Objective Communication: Writing, Speaking and Arguing”) states that objective communication always answers two questions: “What?” and “So what?” Keep it simple. Keep in mind the product or service you have to offer, and why you believe it should interest them. This will provide your listeners with guidelines for a course of action.
Right now you’re approaching business conversations with the idea, “Everything hinges on this one conversation.” No, that’s not really it. What’s important is that while you have their attention, you answer the questions “what” and “so what” while also being ready to answer their specific questions too.
By focusing on “what” and “so what” instead of, “I must be a great and polished speaker,” you’ll reduce your anxiety by shifting your focus to what’s actually more important.
Error # 3: “Rejection is a sign of failure.”
You’re elevating rejection and the opinions of others above the facts themselves. This isn’t logical, but it’s what you’re doing.
Why does rejection occur? Sometimes, what you have to offer, product-wise or service-wise, is not what the person needs. Someone tries to sell me a Mercedes, but I reject their sales pitch. Does that mean I view their product as bad? Does that mean the sales pitch was poorly executed? No. I simply don’t want a Mercedes.
Another type of rejection is when people have a better offer somewhere else. Maybe they can get a cheaper price because they know someone connected with the company. Countless reasons are possible, and you might never know what they are. The point is: It’s not personal, and it’s not a catastrophe. You never were going to have that customer, anyway.
Sometimes rejection will occur because you do a bad job, either in explaining or in the product or service itself. Valid criticism might sting, but it’s also an opportunity to correct. When you correct, you’re stronger. When someone criticizes you with a valid point, they did you a favor, even if they do so unkindly.
Rejection feels like a loss, a loss you can and should have prevented. In many cases, you could not have prevented it. In other cases, you can learn something to make rejection less likely the next time around.
You feel like rejection is a catastrophe. The way I know that is that you experience “crippling” anxiety and fear because of perceived or anticipated rejection. The thing you’re fearing is not that dangerous. Any successful enterprise is full of rejection. The key is having enough people who want and accept your product or service. Eradicating rejection is neither possible nor necessary.
In speaking with others, the goal of a given conversation must be clear and delimited in your mind. Before giving a presentation, or before having a conversation, ask yourself, “What specifically do I wish to get across in this particular encounter?” Lack of focus on specifics is a breeding ground for crippling anxiety.
You take your work seriously, and that’s a good thing. It’s part of what will get you where you’re trying to go. But if you view the stakes of any one encounter or conversation as higher than they really are, it will raise your anxiety out of proportion and cause you to become emotionally stymied.
Be sure to “friend” Dr. Hurd on Facebook. Search under “Michael Hurd” (Rehoboth Beach DE). Get up-to-the-minute postings, recommended articles and links, and engage in back-and-forth discussion with Dr. Hurd on topics of interest.