…realise that you’re in good company.

There have probably been more books and articles written about the fear of presenting than about Napoleon, Wagner (a lot- believe me) and the Beckhams put together.

Most Prime Ministers loathe prime ministers question time. Lawrence Olivier said “ the day I lose stage fright is the day I give up acting.”  And I knew a stage hand at the Royal National theatre, who told me that many truly famous actors were sick in a bucket every time they walked through the wings and onto the stage.

Thanks to Professor Laura Empson of the Cass Business School in London and Harvard Law School, I’ve learned of another flavour to fear.

Insecure overachievers

Professor Empson specialises in the management of professional service firms. But I recognise many of the traits she identifies. They exist in almost every sector of business.

This is part of a recent piece she wrote:

“It feels like a constant need to prove you should be where you are, and a constant concern, before every meeting I go to…..am I going to make an idiot of myself here and are people going to see through a façade and think actually there’s no real substance to this?”

This is Jeremy Newman. Until recently, Jeremy was the global CEO of BDO, one of the world’s largest accounting firms. He currently chairs important government bodies and a range of other institutions. By any measure he is hugely successful in his professional life, and yet here he is, telling me that he privately worries constantly that he is not good enough.

He is not alone. In my 25 years of researching leadership and professional service firms ( such as law and accountancy firms, consultancies and investment banks) I have heard numerous brilliant, successful, and apparently confident people describe themselves as insecure. They are insecure overachievers: exceptionally capable and fiercely ambitious, but driven by a profound belief in their own inadequacy.


This fear, this sense of inadequacy, is widely shared. The reasons are manifold, though underlying much of the angst – especially when it comes to presenting – is the fear of failure through ridicule. Being made to look or feel inadequate in public – and especially in front of rivals and critical peers. 


I’d prefer to make a couple of suggestions.

  1. If you’re presenting something important, either to your board or to a conference, avoid delegating the preparation to someone else. Sure – maybe get them to prepare your deck – if you must use one. (Worth reflecting that Blair, Cameron, Clinton, Mandela didn’t use slides). But YOU must be the person to write it, top and tail it, and pull it together.  It has to be in ‘your voice’. How else can you sound inspiring and authentic?


  2. Use language that everyone can understand. Which means not a word of industry speak or jargon. Leave any thoughts of  “vertical integration”, “metrics”, “customer centric” or “negative growth“ in the freezer. And definitely avoid any phrase with the words ”platform” or “framework” in them. They’re both ghastly and lazy – and open to multiple interpretation. Not to mention being a major irritant to anyone in earshot.

Dame Edith Evans’ advice to a young actress:

My dear, when you get up on that stage (or speak up in a board meeting) some people will not like your chemistry.
If they don’t like your chemistry , at least let them admire your skill“


With grateful thanks to Professor Laura Empson and BBC Capital.