Transparency at Work

“It has come to my attention...”: The Most Dreaded Phrases in the Workplace

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Thomas Dawson2021-10-22
A recent study tried to find out which common workplace phrases cause the most anxiety...and the results probably won’t surprise you.

A year ago TheKnowledgeAcademy.com conducted a six week experiment in which all staff had to wear a heart rate monitor whenever they were at work. (Staff weren’t told why they had been asked to wear them.) What the researchers found was that - in addition to the kinds of commonplace phrases that you might expect to trigger stress, anxiety, and an increased heart rate - seemingly innocuous requests to present or speak in public proved to be especially stressful.

The Results

The most dreaded phrase in the study was "Let’s have a chat". With much of the rest of the list populated by other anxiety triggering phrases like "Just make it happen", "It has come to my attention…", and "How do you think it’s going?". But the entries that come in second and third place in the list may surprise you.

"Would you be able to do a presentation for us?" and "Can you share your findings in today’s meeting?" are essentially reasonable requests for us to do part of our job. And yet, such simple requests caused some of the biggest increases in heart rate. These findings shed light on the generally unacknowledged but frequently experienced anxiety about public speaking that many of us experience at work on a regular basis. In this blog post we would like to explore our relationship with glossophobia (the fear of public speaking), the root of the problem, and how we might overcome it.

What is glossophobia? (& how common is it?)

Studies and surveys have consistently found that the fear of public speaking is extremely common. Rates of glossophobia can vary and range from between 25% and a shocking 75%! With some surveys showing that fear of public speaking is more common than a fear of spiders and even death.

What is the root of the problem?

While a fear of public speaking is extremely common, it likely comes from a place of misunderstanding. We tend to think of instances when we might need to speak in front of others as Us vs. Them situations. You are the speaker, they are the audience. It is your job to speak, engage, entertain, or inform. It is the audience’s job to listen, to have their attention and interest kept by you, to be passive.

This view of public speaking situations is exactly the wrong way to think about them, an unhealthy way to think about them, and the root of why we feel such anxiety around presenting and speaking. The reality is that - because fear of public speaking is such a common experience - audience members are not sitting in judgement or expecting to be entertained. They understand the pressure you are feeling and the stress you might be under. And so they are really looking to you with great sympathy, understanding, and a willingness for you to succeed.

Because your audience likely are sitting there, actively listening and willing you to do a great job, the trick is to let them help you and give them the opportunity to contribute to making the presentation a success.

How do we fix it?

Much of the advice that you might find on the internet on how to get better at public speaking will probably advise you to do more. Be more energetic. Do more preparation. Get more practice. Among other things.

I want to give you license to do less. Do less talking, do more listening. Take the focus away from yourself, and let the audience pick up the slack. To keep your audience engaged and interested, the trick is to actually do less, rather than more. The temptation when thinking about our own public speaking is to think I need to be funnier, I need to be more informative, I need to talk more. But, in fact, audiences hate to be talked at for long periods, and the trick to keeping their attention is to let them in to express themselves and have their voices heard.

Start to think of your audience as collaborators, as allies. It doesn’t need to be - and usually isn’t - an Us vs. Them kind of situation. Your audience want you to succeed and they want to have their voice heard. So let them in. Let them do some of the work for you. Let them have their voices heard. The best part is that you come out of the whole thing looking like the brilliant public speaker you always wanted to be, and the funny thing is: you didn’t really do that much talking at all.

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