Nerves when speaking to Important People
November 17, 2014 1:52 PM   Subscribe

I get nervous when speaking to Important Businesspeople, specifically, VPs and C-levels and the higher levels of middle management. How can I avoid this?

This is in the context of speaking at meetings, even the most casual ones. Even if I'm totally comfortable with 9/10 people in the meeting, if the tenth person seems Important, my voice starts to shake. I plow ahead and say what I need to, but can never quite stabilize my voice.

Public speaking, presentations, and interviews I'm all fine with, though I do get nervous when playing a musical instrument in public. When speaking with politicians, famous people, or crushes, I might babble, but I never get that shaky voice.

I only interact with VPs and C-levels so often, so I can't go the exposure therapy route for this. How can I nip this in the bud?

Thanks in advance.
posted by rebooter to Human Relations (24 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Practice, really. They're used to people being nervous around them, I wouldn't sweat it too much. You could also just try and interact with them more often -- depending on your company, that might be easier than you think -- company functions and so on.
posted by empath at 2:16 PM on November 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

They're not that important. They're only human beings like you and me. They're not gods; they piss and shit just like everybody else, and bleed the same red when injured. Keeping this in mind helps me.
posted by starbreaker at 2:19 PM on November 17, 2014

Be as prepared as you possibly can. Rehearse in the mirror. Sing loudly to yourself in the car beforehand take 20 deep breaths (6 seconds in/6 seconds out) so your breathing feels natural even at higher volumes. Anticipate questions around your topic so you'll not have to search for answers on the spot.

The more you do this, the more you will see that they are people too. There is a reason you are the one doing the speaking; it's because you have the information that they need to do their jobs or make their decisions.

Don't worry. You got this.
posted by phreckles at 2:34 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're managing the mental part pretty well, it's just that your body is betraying your nervousness. Some people (many professional musicians) take beta blockers for this kind of thing; they tone down the physical stress response but without little-to-no mental effect. This might be overkill for your problem but it could be worth looking into.
posted by vogon_poet at 2:36 PM on November 17, 2014

There's a buddhist story that is supposedly true- A well known buddhist monk (who's name escapes me) was asked to lead a service for a very prominent figure in the country and he realized by the feelings that came up inside him that he was in fact not yet enlightened. It is said that an enlightened person sees both the beggar and the king as equal. He realized he did not see them as equal after all, so he went away to some monastery for a few years and then when he returned he was enlightened. The moral of this story is that projecting an identity onto others happens to even the best of us. But you have to go to monastery and shut out the world. Just realize that the "importance" of this person is really a projection coming from you. Without that projection, all you have is reality. The reality is that this person has a body of skin, nerves, sinews, skeleton and bowel movements just like yours and just like the beggar. This person has smelly farts that he/she tries to hide or cover up just like you. This person has doubts just like you. etc. THAT is the reality. If all else fails, during the meeting just picture this "important" person having just ripped a stinky bomb right in the middle of that meeting while forward trying to pretend it wasn't him/her. Because even if that isn't happening to them at that moment it most certainly has sometime, somewhere at SOME point in their life.
posted by rancher at 2:40 PM on November 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

In addition to the suggestions above on being prepared and how to re-frame the situation, a little power posing before hand may also be worthwhile.
posted by jazzbaby at 2:47 PM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think being prepared is the best thing you can do. Beforehand, feel confident in what you can add to the discussion and what you are going to say. Practice out loud by yourself. Prepare talking points for yourself. I definitely run into this same sort of thing and I do feel better when I have a clear sense of what I will say and the value in what I will say.
posted by AppleTurnover at 2:48 PM on November 17, 2014

If you had quite an authoritarian/taxing parent/parent figure dealing with 'authority' can be a struggle. Try and trust your intellect and knowledge.. even if you fluff stuff initially, they will most likely shine through in the end.

An old martial arts trick is to suck a small stone/small boiled sweet could be less evil.. this tricks your body into 'non anxious' physiology as it stops your mouth drying up.
posted by tanktop at 3:39 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Imagine them constipated. Honestly.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:52 PM on November 17, 2014

Ask them out for a beer?
posted by 256 at 4:23 PM on November 17, 2014

Probably do not ask them out for a beer. Take your time when speaking, don't try to fill the silence after the Important Person says something. Think before you open your mouth.
posted by pintapicasso at 4:29 PM on November 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Rest a beat. Make sure you listen to them fully. Before you "plow ahead" take a moment to compose yourself. Smile warmly at them when you have the chance. Look them in the eye and smile. Be expansive and open in your posture and gestures. Poser posing is a good idea.
posted by amanda at 4:33 PM on November 17, 2014

Ha! For "poser posing" I meant "power posing." Freudian slip, I suppose.
posted by amanda at 4:53 PM on November 17, 2014

There is a good reason why you get nervous when speaking to an Important Person. That person can impact your career. If you come off very well, you might get promoted faster. If you come off poorly, you might get worse job opportunities.

Imagining them in their underwear or constipated is not going to help because it doesn't remove the underlying power structure, which is that they can dramatically impact your life.

If you still say everything that you would normally say, but in a shaky voice, that's okay. Stop yourself from babbling or staying silent. But if you say things in a very obviously nervous way, that's still fine. There are plenty of people who are nervous yet extremely effective.
posted by vienna at 5:16 PM on November 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

just wanted to make a minor correction.. I meant to say you DON'T have to go to a monastery and shut out the world. The comment I wrote above is missing the word "don't". I hope this doesn't mean you're in the bathroom right now shaving off all your hair.
posted by rancher at 5:25 PM on November 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

This is in the context of speaking at meetings, even the most casual ones. Even if I'm totally comfortable with 9/10 people in the meeting, if the tenth person seems Important, my voice starts to shake. I plow ahead and say what I need to, but can never quite stabilize my voice.

I get to listen to me speak on tape sometimes. Its never, ever as bad as I think it is. When I think I'm nailing the voice, I'm not either, sadly.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:48 PM on November 17, 2014

I'm a sometimes a VP level sometimes C-level employee and I get nervous talking to anyone. I had my voice crack in a pretty embarrassing way while presenting to a Major General at the Pentagon (extra intimidating to me at the time, and I was the CEO of the company I was representing). No one in the room cared but me. Today, I am a lot easier on myself, as I've gotten older the more I realize just how human everyone is, and there is no reason to hold myself to a higher standard when it comes to nerves than I would hold someone else.

Additionally, my dad is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, I can tell you he is very human, and actually a nervous public speaker himself. Do you get nervous in front of director level folks? How about senior managers? What is magical about an executive? (answer: nothing) You would be understanding if someone below you in the org was nervous around you, right? Most these people are understanding of nerves in my experience, and the ones that aren't probably don't deserve your consideration or concern.
posted by ill3 at 6:11 PM on November 17, 2014 [9 favorites]

One thing I've learned about phobias, at least for me -- do not let them take hold in the moment. So if you know you've got a C-level person you have to talk to at a company get-together, do not think about it. Push a hundred thoughts into your head about boots you have to buy and things you're going to do tomorrow but do not leave room for 'oh my God I hope I don't get nervous and make an ass of myself'. You'll be much less nervous at the eventual meet and greet, and those people are actually also humans, like us, and it's okay to not careen into interactions like some sort of modern turbo charged Emily Post. (I had never met the president of the company, my boss's boss, at a Christmas party and I not-very-subtly looked at his name tag and he laughed and I laughed. I totally looked like a dork but it was one of those, what are you going to do, this is pretty dorky moments, and he knew it and I knew it and that made it funny.)

If you had quite an authoritarian/taxing parent/parent figure dealing with 'authority' can be a struggle.

I think there's a lot of truth in this and it's worth considering. I got a big feeling of being 'on stage' as a kid and invariably failed because I was introverted and shy and thinky.

Being a bit of a dork is surprisingly okay in a lot of instances.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:12 PM on November 17, 2014

another point, they don't care about the voice. get the content right, the voice will follow.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:18 PM on November 17, 2014

Keep in mind that they're people too- humans with their own set of problems in life. They're not any better or worse than you. Take a deep breath and put your best face forward. Be humble, genuine and listen but don't let anyone walk all over you. You got this!
posted by BeSumr at 9:52 PM on November 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

most of the time (100%) they want to talk about what's affected them. bringing anything else into is up to you. I'm at events where I have to shuffle Big People to lesser events. They always talk about what matters to them. if you leave a Huge empty space of non-talk there.
posted by Twist at 1:53 AM on November 18, 2014

Do you get nervous only when speaking to people in these positions at your own company?

If no, do some volunteering in something where you will be doing public speaking in places where Important Businesspeople will be present, or maybe Important People who are in politics or something instead of business would work as well. You could do presentations on some area of interest to a professional club or organization, for example.

Toastmasters can also work if you can find a group that has some Important Businesspeople in it.
posted by yohko at 2:40 PM on November 18, 2014

Some companies have internal clubs or groups for employees, if you can find one that has some of the higher level people you get nervous around that would give you more exposure.
posted by yohko at 2:43 PM on November 18, 2014

There was a very relevant article on this the other day by Lucy Kellaway.

Seemingly, as you get older and near the end of your career. The "fear" goes away.
posted by jacobean at 3:08 PM on November 18, 2014

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