by Steve Adubato, PhD

I was talking with my colleague at Rutgers University--Newark, Heidi Szymanski, the other day. Heidi is the Assistant Provost for Administrative Services and Budget. She has been asked to make presentations in all sorts of situations, usually dealing with budgets, cutbacks and tough choices that have to be made. Heidi is a smart and competent manager who should have no problem getting up and speaking in public. But that's not the case. Like millions of others, she is "freaked out" by the idea of having to get up in front of others, particularly her colleagues, to make a presentation.

Heidi shared with me exactly what causes her to freeze and have tremendous anxiety when speaking in public. Says Heidi, "Fear. Fear of being embarrassed and fear of failure. I am afraid that when I get up in front of a group, I won't know something. The thought of having all eyes on me, whether it's 10 or 100 pairs of eyes, makes me feel uncomfortable." In our conversation, Heidi revealed that often times when giving a presentation, she cannot enjoy the moment. She confessed that she would force herself to "get through it and manage it."

As I thought about Heidi's dilemma it became clear that she was viewing her presentations in a way that was guaranteed to produce anxiety and fear. She kept saying that she was afraid of SPEAKING IN PUBLIC. She was seeing a presentation as solely a one-way experience ("All eyes are on me"). What she needed to do was take a dramatically different approach to this workplace challenge.

Heidi said she was much more comfortable engaging in a conversation or dialogue with people as opposed to being the only one doing the talking. Great! The key was for Heidi to see herself as more of a facilitator of an interactive conversation as opposed to being the SPEAKER. As Heidi thought about this approach, she immediately took comfort in the fact that she could engage others. But then she asked, "How can I do that if I am being asked to give a presentation?"

Simple. Who says a presentation has to be a one-way experience? Who says it can't be interactive and participatory? And why can't a presentation include thought-provoking questions that get your audience involved and on board? All of these approaches are not only acceptable, but desirable. Plus, they take some of the pressure off of you while others are talking. Ask yourself, would you rather be lectured to or in a conversation? The answer is obvious.

One of the biggest problems is that most of us have never been taught how to engage others. We take it for granted or assume that a conversation will spontaneously ensue. But that's not the way it works in presentations. The presenter must drive the process. For example, at her next administrators meeting, Heidi could say to her colleagues; "I have recommended that we make cuts in specific departments. Dr. Jones, how do you see the proposed cutback in your department impacting the quality of educational instruction?" Heidi should then actively listen to Dr. Jones and ask for a specific example or clarification of what he says. She can then turn to Dr. Smith and get his feedback on what Dr. Jones has said or raise a new question. The idea is to keep the conversation going and focused.

Heidi Szymanski is committed to trying this new participatory approach at the next meeting she has been asked to present. I'm betting she is going to be great and her colleagues will not only be impressed but they will appreciate her asking for their input. I'm also betting she will have fun in the process. I'll keep you posted.