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Meet the people conquering their fear of public speaking head on

By William McGee

Whether it is a wedding speech or a work presentation, public speaking can provoke nerves in even the most self-confident of us. There’s even a name for it: ‘glossophobia’. The word derives from the Greek glōssa, meaning tongue, and phobos, meaning fear.

 Though many of us have suffered mild glossophobia from time to time, the impact on our daily lives is often negligible. For some, however, the prospect of public speaking can seem like a nightmare.

American keynote speaker Kal Aras reckons 70% of jobs today involve some form of public speaking, making avoidance tricky.

“I had previously always run from my fear of public speaking,” said Mark Beckett, a member of Kings Speakers Toastmasters Club, which provides communication and public speaking training to people with speech impediments or social anxiety.

“In situations where I had no choice, such as at uni, I would find myself slipping a little vodka in my bottle of Coke that I would take if I had to do a presentation, just to ease the nerves slightly. I decided that I could not run from this my whole life.”

Club secretary Suzana Kalcic said: “I started going to Toastmasters because I had heard about it on a therapy programme for people who stutter. It sounded like the perfect next step in helping me to overcome my fears of public speaking and in just building confidence in myself in general.”

At the fortnightly meet-up members are each assigned an impromptu topic on which they have to talk for one to two minutes in front of everyone. A visiting journalist could only muster 40 seconds on “bravery”, while members performed admirably on more exacting topics like “gratitude” and “integrity”.

Communication disorders and social phobias often go hand-in-hand. According to the Communication Trust, a UK not-for-profit organisation that supports children and young people with communication needs, the 10% of children in the UK with a communication disorder are almost three times more likely to have developed a social phobia by the age of 19.

The most recent Psychiatric Morbidity Survey in 2014 shows there are some three million people in the UK with an anxiety disorder, a figure on the rise. Despite the considerable personal, social and economic impact on sufferers, only 15% are receiving treatment.

Beckett said: “My ambitions are not as high as becoming an excellent speaker at this stage, they are just to not want to head for the hills as I prepare to go up, or to at least just get rid of the sick feeling in my stomach and tremor in my voice. But if I can get to the stage where I actively look forward to speaking and become good at it, this would be an added bonus that would be more than welcome.”

Many of Kings Speakers’ longstanding members have experienced this bonus first-hand, such as Brian Skelton, whose stammer is now barely noticeable. “I want to do a TEDxLondon talk in the future about my life and how I have coped with my stammer,” he said, on his future ambitions. As for Kalcic: “I am currently working on starting my own podcast and this is something I couldn’t have even dreamt of having the confidence to do before Toastmasters.”