Public Speaking Over the Phone
April 11, 2011 2:46 PM   Subscribe

How can I overcome my fear of giving presentations over the phone?

For my job, I occasionally have to deliver 5-minute presentations to potential clients during conference calls. The meetings are an hour long, and my segment usually comes in towards the end. I listen in to the entire call and the whole time, I start to feel increasingly anxious about my presentation. Even though I know the material well and always spend time practicing beforehand, as soon as the moderator introduces me and lets me start talking, I freeze up. Almost instantly, I can feel my heart begin to race, which causes me to become flustered and forget most of what I intended to say. I start stuttering and I reach the point where I'm so nervous that I can hardly breathe, much less deliver the presentation that I'm there to give.

I know that this is a phone issue because I have absolutely no problems with speaking in public when I can actually see the people I'm talking to. In those settings, I usually have a little bit of nervous energy that builds up right before I speak, but once I've started speaking, all of that goes away. I feel as though I'm in my element, and most importantly, I feel confident.

However, when I'm speaking during these conference calls, I don't feel that way at all. I think the fact that I'm unable to see anyone in front of me makes me feel more nervous. When I'm standing in front of a crowd, it's easy for me to assess the environment and feel in control of my speech's outcome. But when I'm giving a presentation over the phone, I'm sitting at my desk and feeling anxious because I'm speaking into an empty void. Of course, the more anxious I become, the more I start stuttering and stammering, and then the entire presentation is ruined because I rush to finish it while skipping over most of the topics that I had intended to address.

So, here's my question: How can I overcome my fear of giving presentations over the phone? I've tried rehearsing more, and this helps calm me in the moments leading up to the presentation, but once I start talking, all of the anxious feelings take over again. I've also thought that it might help for me to be able to stand up in front of an empty room while I'm giving the presentation, but unfortunately, that's not a possibility since I have to be logged in at my desk during the conference call. My next presentation is tomorrow afternoon, so I would greatly appreciate any suggestions that you all have for how I can feel more confident and pull off a successful talk.

posted by sabira to Work & Money (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Something that helps me think about communicating with people is that confusion is the default state of communication. You have an idea, the other person lacks it, and getting it across to them is never guaranteed to be confusion-free on either side. There is nothing weird or embarassing about having someone misunderstand what you say - it's a natural part of getting any idea across.

This is especially true with phone conferences, where you can't communicate with body language, and nobody knows whether they can start saying something without talking over someone else! Phone conferences are awkward for everyone, and you should feel like a champion simply for getting through one, even if there are some confused questions and seemingly-awkward periods of silence. The other side probably feels as awkward as you do.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 2:56 PM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you practiced giving the presentation over the phone? Call your parents or your best friend or your SO and give the presentation to them, from your desk, under the same conditions you'll be using for the clients.

Also, if you'd be more comfortable standing up or at a lectern or whatever, set that up for yourself at your desk. Buy a tabletop lectern and stand at it when you give the presentation. Have your notes. Pace and walk around with the phone. Get a headset so that you can use your hands. Do whatever makes you comfortable with public speaking, physically.

This can be nerve-wracking for all the reasons that EMRJKC94 mentions. But the more you can practice under real conditions and make the real conditions more comfortable for yourself, the easier it will be. It will get better, I promise.
posted by decathecting at 3:18 PM on April 11, 2011

Best answer: Is it possible for you to have someone else sit in your office with you while you give the presentation? That way, you could look at them and talk as if you were just giving the presentation to them. Forget the phone is even there. Of course, you'd have to be sure that this person would be giving you helpful, supportive feedback, not making funny faces at you.

Or, maybe set up a mirror and be talking to yourself, as if you were rehearsing the talk? Might be weird, but I think talking to a face, even your own, would be better than talking into an empty space. I'm with you--I hate that.
posted by Corvid at 3:18 PM on April 11, 2011

Best answer: We all know that talking on the phone puts us at a disadvantage because we can't use body language. But we also need to remember that it puts our listeners at a disadvantage for the same reason, because they can't use body language to communicate their reaction to our speech. Your listeners may wish to express that they think you're making very good points and they agree with you, but the nature of phone conferences means they have to express that through stony silence.

I had a phone interview for a job, and an indeterminate number of the interviewers laughed at one of my answers. After the call I felt angry and humiliated. I ended up getting an in-person follow-up interview, and then the job. The people on the other side weren't laughing at me maliciously, but they couldn't express that in the phone conference.

So, you shouldn't imagine people receiving your words with stern, miserable faces. You should imagine them smiling and nodding after your every sentence, because that's just what they might be doing if you were talking in person.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 3:22 PM on April 11, 2011

Best answer: I'm sitting at my desk and feeling anxious because I'm speaking into an empty void.

Perhaps you've solved your own problem. You need to fill that void. Build a mental image of your prospects. Maybe even imagine them in a room together, with you at the front addressing them. And maybe riff off the old saw about visualizing your audience in their underwear. In this case, sitting unseen in their offices, digging for ear wax or whatever.

It sounds like you allow yourself to dwell on your anxiety. That's a mistake, because the only direction it will go is up. Anxiety is negative energy, but it is energy. Harness it and use it to your advantage. Make your butterflies fly in formation.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:13 PM on April 11, 2011

I piitch movie ideas over the phone all the time. For me the key is to use a headset and walk around. I check in with the other people on the call intermittently "So, let me just take a break. Anyone got any questions". This breaks up the one-way nature of the phone pitch. But walk around and PROJECT as if you were in the room with them.

Also, have a crib sheet at your side with your main points on.
posted by unSane at 4:17 PM on April 11, 2011

I think part of the problem is that you don't get visual communication from your listeners. How about trying to work in questions to the listeners early in the presentation, so that you get a better sense of what they know already and where their interests lie? This strategy has the added benefit of taking the stress off of you of being the focus of talking from the start. You get to make some kind of connection with your listeners, which might even help you visualize them.

I have a similar issue -- thank you for giving me the opportunity to think about it a little more objectively.
posted by amtho at 4:37 PM on April 11, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the feedback, everyone. All of your suggestions were incredibly helpful, and I used them to help guide me through the presentation that I gave last month. After reading through your comments, I realized that part of my nerves came from the fact that I couldn’t see anyone while I was speaking. So, I found this image of a crowd and kept it up on the screen while I was talking. Looking at it during the presentation made me feel like a rock star, and it was great to have the extra boost of feeling like these people were cheering me on.

Once I started the presentation, my nerves did start to bubble up like they always tend to do. But this time, it was different because I was able to do a much better job of keeping them in control. The nerves didn’t disappear completely, but instead of panicking and stuttering as soon as I was faced with the nerves, I paused, put my phone on mute, took a few deep breaths, and resumed talking. The pause was short enough for the other people to not worry that I had disappeared, and it was long enough for me to collect my thoughts, get in control of the situation again, and then refocus my speech. I did this about five more times during the presentation, and it helped me reach the finish line successfully, instead of giving up as I had tended to do before.

I’m about to give another presentation in a couple of hours, and it’s actually the last one that I’ll ever have to give since I’m leaving this job in a few weeks. For anyone else who’s reading this and is faced with a similar problem, my recommendation is to take all of the advice in this thread and use it to your advantage. Try to imagine all of the people who are listening to you speak, and truly believe that the people on the other line are there because they want to learn something from you. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be there. Even though I’ll most likely never have to do this again after today since I’m switching careers, I’m still very grateful for all the help that I’ve received in overcoming a fear. Thanks again, everyone!
posted by sabira at 8:26 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

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