For some of us, we’re witty, confident, and downright funny in front of our best friends and family but when it comes to speaking English in front of native speakers and bosses, suddenly our mouth goes dry, our minds turn blank and palms get sweatier than usual.
Last month, we received an excellent question from one of the subscribers of our free Speaking with Confidence course about speaking English confidently in front of superiors at the office. Great question, Salwan!
First, the good news. It is actually normal to feel slightly nervous and in awe of people. Why do you think a fan suddenly becomes speechless when she bumps into her favourite actor at the mall? Being tongue-tied happens to everybody, any time and every time, and while you’re not desperate for a wefie with your boss at the office, you can still get a bit tongue-tied when you’re required to say hello or have a chat with the CEO of the company.
At a training event with managers, some of the top managers have even confessed to me how nervous they get when they get a visit from the company’s director (the superior’s superior!). See how normal it is?
The question is, is there a coping technique we can all use to get in the groove of speaking like a normal human being that we are?
Here are three techniques that might be useful for you should you dare take the challenge.
- HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOUR
When you get panic-stricken at the thought of meeting your boss, maybe the voice inside of your head is saying, “I’m talentless!”, "I don’t know English!", "I have nothing worth to say", “I’m not important”.
Whatever that voice is saying to you can be mean. That’s because you expect perfection of yourself, don’t you?
One of the best ways to take yourself less seriously is to have a sense of humour about it. Now, don’t start the "imagine them in their underwear” kind of thing because, frankly, that’s horrifying, but rather acknowledge the "fear", then say to yourself:
So what if he’s my boss?
They are just NORMAL people, with families, siblings, pets and hobbies.
They use the toilet as I much as I do!
What am I so freaking nervous about?"
When you disarm that voice inside of you with the power of humour, you’ll find yourself feeling slightly more relaxed and in tune with who you are. You’ll also get to see these “people” as what they truly are: ordinary human beings.
So rather than feeling awestruck by their title and position, start thinking instead that you might just have plenty of things in common with them. They were young once and they too have had their fair share of challenges in life. They may have children to deal with at home, survived on little sleep before coming to the office, and are dealing with piles of bills at home too.
Worry less about your grammar and how you sound, look forward to having deep connections with them by striking an insightful conversation instead.
- PREP YOURSELF MENTALLY
Just like you’ve prepared for that job interview, you can also prepare yourself by imagining your encounter with your superior. So any time you have a meeting with them or you need to drop some files at your boss’ office, ask yourself:
- What could she ask me about today?
- What does my boss expect me to say about project X?
- If he says “how’s everything at your department today?” shall I tell him the good news or the bad news?
- How can I make my boss understand the dilemma better? What suggestions can I offer?
Rehearse these “critical” moments in your head. Prepare a few quick answers of what you want to say. If you must, prepare several opinions, thoughtful questions or insightful observations in advance. But just like any office gathering or chitchat, do not ramble. Nobody likes a rambler especially when they are pressed for time. Learn to get to the point quickly.
- HAVE A ROLE TO PLAY AT THE OFFICE
We might feel very comfortable with our current role as a young lecturer at the college, for example. Do you know why that is so? That’s because you were hired for the skills you have. You've earned your right to become an authority in that field. But then when it comes to mingling with the seniors, suddenly, you become shy as a rabbit.
Now try giving yourself a role at your office/department but do this at your own will (meaning, don’t go telling everybody. It’s your secret.)
Maybe you're The Curious Junior who asks for advice from the seniors, The Thoughtful Conversationalist who investigates into matters everybody else has overlooked at the meeting, The Mindful Observer who notices things that may cheer people up.
Then participate in conversations according to the role you play that day. It's a bit like acting because you've given yourself a character to play, which makes you feel like you’re contributing something useful in the encounter. Don’t be fake, of course. You’re doing this out of the genuine desire to be a useful contributor in a speaking encounter. And the best part? You can put less pressure on yourself to be saying things that are "out of character" (so there’s no need to be The Riveting Conversationalist or The Office Joker because you’re not playing “them” today.)
Lastly, I want to share with you what Susan Cain, the celebrated author of "Quiet", a book on introverts, did in order to overcome her fear of public speaking. She set herself a challenge called the Year of Speaking Dangerously.
It was the year she took to prepare herself to go on endless book tours and speaking engagements to talk about her book. To do this, she gave that year a title (the fun challenge!) and she conquered her fear by exposing herself to mini speaking events: first by speaking in small occasions (she started with families and loved ones), then attending Toastmasters, hiring speaking coaches, and spoke at TED, etc. (Watch her talk here )
You too can set a similar challenge for yourself, give it a fabulous name and approach it as you would on an adventure of self-discovery. Arm yourself with a sense of humour; you’ll need it most as you struggle through, and you'll do great!
Here’s to a confident you, one baby step at a time.
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