Party Tricks Help Banish Fears

June 20, 2005

Laura Kelly (Australian Financial Review)

If you have never recited poetry to colleagues while dressed in a toga, or delivered a rendition of Marilyn Monroe's Happy Birthday, Mr President, your professional development could be lagging, says Bond University's assistant professor of communication, Mike Grenby.

Grenby teaches public speaking, a core undergraduate course at the university. He started the course six years ago, out of concern that students weren't developing key personal and business skills because of their fear of public speaking.

"If you can't communicate confidently, one, you won't get the date, two, you won't get the job and three, you won't be successful in your job," he says. "And the main problem with public speaking is fear of public speaking."

Harvard Business Review has reported on his unconventional teaching techniques and a survey of 500 Bond students shows that 32 per cent of students who took his course reported a 31 per cent to 40 per cent reduction in their fear.

Grenby's technique starts with bashing a bar stool with a foam pool toy. "Techniques like bashing a bar stool encourage students to stretch their comfort zone," he says.

"You then don't feel as frightened when you have to give a talk, because stretching your comfort zone teaches you it's possible to stand up in front of others and get over your panic. After some rather strange comfort zone stretching exercises, giving a regular speech becomes much easier by comparison."

Grenby's technique is a creative approach to curing phobias through repeated exposure. Once they have become comfortable bashing a bar stool, students go on to perform their take on Monroe and Elvis Presley hits or dress in a toga and and declaim under the university's archway. Some students drop out, but most go on to partially conquer their public speaking fears.

The question is whether the level of gain from such short-term courses makes further university and business investment in confidence-building exercises worthwhile.

The Australian Graduate School of Management's director of award programs, Sharyn Roberts, says that because public speaking is a skill, rather than a knowledge-based ability, short courses can achieve basic improvements in skills.

"Like many skill-based things, even a very short, intensive program can give you useful frameworks, tools and strategies,"she says. "And while a lot of business is transacted via email, it's the personal connection and the ability to impart confidence that clinches a deal."

Roberts says it would be no bad thing to see more courses like Bond University's at undergraduate level. She reports that across the board, large consulting, financial service and law firms have introduced presentation training, many in their induction programs.

"It's a relatively low-risk, low-cost investment for most organisations," she says.

Roberts expresses scepticism that Grenby's dramatic approach to public speaking would be universally embraced, but says there is room for different teaching approaches to suit different people.

Adam Guastella, a UNSW academic who specialises in phobias, agrees that different approaches to overcoming fear are best for different people.

"While exposure therapy is the main form of treatment for social phobias, the most important thing is tailoring treatment to an individual's specific fears," he says.