Sage Suggestions for Solving Speaking Squeamishness

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In an AML compliance role, one is often asked to speak in front of people. Unfortunately, the fear of public speaking is the most common fear for humans. Yes, that means more than the fear of darkness, heights (my personal favorite), things with sharp teeth and circus clowns. This fear may have many root causes. Some people had a bad experience in school or early in their career speaking in front of others.  Generally, it is because they lost their train of thought or tripped over a word or two. Others are concerned that an accent or speech impediment might cause embarrassment. Others are simply afraid of being in front of other people. Whatever the reason one might have any fear associated with public speaking, rest assured you are in good company. In fact, some people who are considered excellent speakers still feel fear when they step to the podium or stand up at a conference table.

There are plenty of books and articles on the subject. Many of them offer excellent advice. However, it is always good to review the basics of preparing to give a presentation. In addition, there are also some tricks used by professional stage actors that could help you get through your next presentation.

Let’s review the classic approaches to erasing the fear of public speaking. The first is prepare, prepare, prepare.  Knowing your topic cold will be especially helpful if you lose your place. By being very comfortable with your subject you can often fill in facts or a story until you can find your place in the presentation and get back on track. This bit of advice is good for everyone, no matter how comfortable you are speaking in front of others. Too often we are subjected to people who have excellent speaking styles but have little or no knowledge of their topic. In some parts of the world these are known as either politicians or pundits. 

The second classic piece of advice is to interact with the audience. This is extremely difficult for some people. If done awkwardly it could heighten the very fear that one is trying to overcome. One popular bit of speaking wisdom is to imagine the audience naked. Supposedly this will make them less threatening. Then again it might be frightening and disturbing at many levels.  You might want to replace that strategy with getting some help from your friends. Talk with your co-workers and friends, the people you feel most comfortable around, before the presentation.  Ask them, if possible to sit in different locations in the audiences.  As you speak, look at them directly moving from one to another frequently. By doing this, you are chatting with co-workers in your mind while to others it appears like you are interacting with the entire audience.

The interaction or appearance of interaction with the audience is very important. Too often we hear speakers who bury themselves in their script or their notes and never look up.  Not only does this make them dull speakers, it often keeps them from projecting or speaking into the microphone. Look at the audience and especially your friends. If looking at the audience is what triggers your particular fear, then slowly scan the room focusing on walls, furniture, the coffee set up—whatever is non-threatening. Just make sure you let your eyes pass over the audience at some point or it may look like you are following the flight of a fly or a mosquito.

The last bit of classic advice worth mentioning is to accept who you are and take the pressure off yourself. Some people are great speakers, some are not. It’s like there are talented athletes, musicians and artists.  Not everyone is skilled in everything. As an AML professional you are good at what you do and that is why you are doing it. You were not hired to be a stage actor or a professional ball player.  You were hired to help prevent money laundering. If you have to occasionally give a presentation, consider it part of the job. It may not be your favorite thing to do, but it’s not your primary job function. You won’t get fired for a less than stellar presentation. If your facts are right and you know your subject, you will be fine. Franklin Roosevelt got it right when he said the only thing to fear is fear itself. The fear may always be there but you don’t need to let it control you and keep you from doing what you do best.

Finally, here are a couple of stage techniques that may help you through your next presentation. Do you find yourself with a dry mouth? Instead of gulping water every few sentences like a person who has just returned from a walk in the Sahara, try lightly chewing or rubbing the outside of your tongue. This is an excellent way to relieve the dryness without having to interrupt your talk, especially at the exciting risk assessment part.  Also, establish yourself as the point of interest.  Actors when they first step on stage will stop for an instant to establish that their character has arrived. Take a moment before you begin speaking and smile at the audience. Remind them that you are the focus of their attention because you have something important to tell them. 

Finally, nobody will be able to benefit from your knowledge if you rush your lines. This is a very common problem, even for experienced speakers. Yes, you may be the only thing standing between your audience and a martini or lunch.  However, going through your presentation like you are a racehorse at the Kentucky Derby will benefit no one. You will be more likely to lose your place or be hard to understand. Take your time. You have something worthwhile to say and the people in front of you need to hear it. So take your time, talk to your friends in the audience and know your presentation inside and out. Remember, your fear of speaking doesn’t need to be banished forever. It just needs to be put in a strong box for the length of your presentation.

Have a compliance communication issue you want to address, or perhaps a best practice or war story of your own that you’d like to share with your fellow compliance professionals? Send it in to Our goal is to help everyone become better communicators. We’d love to have you contribute to this effort.

The AML Compliance Communications Toolkit is written by Ed Beemer, an Accredited Public Relations professional (APR) and a CAMS. 

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