You said you used to be afraid of public speaking even though you were a Headteacher – is that true?
When I was a classroom teacher, I was so panic stricken that I couldn’t even speak my wedding vows or tell a joke in a pub! The thought of feeding back to my team after an INSET or even introducing an examination in the hall was enough to make me physically sick. Every hint of a public speaking type of event I would do anything to avoid, including pretending I had lost my voice! I hated going on courses as that moment when you have to introduce yourself would have my heart racing and my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. What made it worse was that I was a confident extravert person and no one guessed how I felt. Which was the way I liked it. In the end, I decided to leave my job and have babies to help me escape it for good.
So what changed?
Even though I managed to avoid public speaking, I then found myself plagued with free floating anxiety that landed on other perceived threats like driving at night or answering phone calls. I eventually realised that evading public speaking was simply compounding my fears and that my comfort zone was shrinking. I decided to read everything I could about anxiety and how to overcome fears. I didn’t want to be bullied by anxiety any more so started a ten-year battle and journey. I finally decided to ‘feel the fear’ and do it anyway I started with small things. I challenged myself and used visualisation techniques (see my book GROW) to try to change my thinking. Gradually I took on leadership roles, including Head of House and Head of Department as my confidence was building. I learnt some essential strategies for managing the fear and got a little bit better each time I led a meeting or spoke to an audience. Learn how to build your speaking confidence with our two-week brain food diet for tackling public speaking anxiety.
What was it like having to do public speaking as a Headteacher?
It changed me so much to discover that when I was brave about it, I grew stronger. When I went for the Headship I had already realised that you just have to say yes to everything, then find a way to do it later. So many people shrink back because they don’t have the confidence. Overcoming my fear of public speaking made me realise that taking risks makes you more resilient. This didn’t stop me being nervous when addressing my staff as a Headteacher, but this time I was able to reframe my thinking and use my strategies. The more I did it, the easier it got, and I began to desensitise. A few years later, I found myself doing public speaking for a living as a trainer and consultant!
Why do you believe public speaking practice is important for teachers?
Teaching is the ultimate public speaking job – so many of us feel comfortable holding forth to students but panic stricken about presenting to our peers. There are so many times when we do need to talk to adults that it is crucial we become confident at speaking to that wider audience.
Teachers need to be able to lead assemblies, speak at parents’ evenings, lead in-school training with other teachers, make a thank you speech for a valued colleague, the list goes on. With the current practice of Teachmeets, research forums and sharing best practice in our Multi Academy Trusts there are plenty of opportunities to practise… Don’t avoid it like I did for years as that just makes you more fearful! See Public Speaking Skills for Teachers course
What do you think about the new Oracy Skills Framework in schools?
I am passionate about developing our young learners as great speakers. We can only do this if we understand their fears and realise that when you learn to speak well publicly you build your self- esteem and confidence. Every teacher and every student should have public speaking training.
I really believe communication skills should be at the heart of school improvement. A school that prioritises the development of children as communicators and builds in opportunities into the curriculum will build a more confident and resilient learner that is ready for the next challenges life has to offer.
What are your top tips for overcoming fear of public speaking?
I can give you six! Here goes…
- Identify the thoughts that hold you back and put an end to them, e.g. ‘I just can’t speak in public because I will dry up’ Stop saying this to yourself and to others people.
- Instead, change this to positive self-talk – say to yourself ‘I love speaking in public because I am worth listening to.’ Say that to yourself when looking in the mirror and breathing steadily. Keep repeating it and convince yourself.
- Do a ten-minute positive visualisation of a speech you could do, every day. Learn how here
- Take every opportunity to speak in public. Start small and easy. Ask questions in meetings, speak up in briefing, offer to take assembly, chair a working party, become a governor, etc.
- Understand your brain and where anxious thoughts come from so that you know how to deal with them. Read up on this
- Encourage your students to do public speaking in class. By coaching them in how to be a great public speaking, you will learn how to do it too.
Sounds great! What’s next for you?
More public speaking, I speak to audiences of teachers all over the world these days – I love it! That and my latest project… writing my first novel. Watch this space!
This interview was conducted by Carrie Swift.
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