By the time Gemma Munro boarded her flight from Adelaide to Sydney last week, she was exhausted and overwhelmed. She unfortunately couldn’t afford to be either.
Awaiting her arrival was a group of women eager to begin the Speakeasy workshop that would beat down their near crippling fear of public speaking and set them on course to reach their full potential.
So Munro took the very advice that she had dispensed to her first two Speakeasy groups in Melbourne and Canberra, and which she would soon be giving the Sydney group. She reined in her focus to just the next step.
“When I was little, my family would bundle into the car at 3am to drive from Adelaide to Melbourne,” she said. “Could my father see Melbourne from Adelaide? Of course he couldn’t.”
“But he could see the next 200 meters with the headlamps and he would get to Melbourne that way. So all you need to think about is the next 200 meters.”
That is exactly how she followed her North Star in going from performer to management consultant and finally to life coach.
Munro began singing for an audience when she was six, went on to grace international stages and used her voice to earn her way through high school and university. Over the years however she transitioned from a fearless child to a young adult who found herself battling “tremendous nerves” before each performance.
“Then I did my PhD in performance psychology and understood how to remove those fears and be myself in front of an audience,” Munro smiled. “The techniques I now use are a merging of personal experience and neuro-psychological research.”
A few years ago she founded Inkling Women, an Adelaide-based leadership and coaching organisation with a dual vision of inspiring women leaders and reducing the gender gap at executive level in Australia. Speakeasy is a conduit for both those visions.
Munro’s research found that women wrestled with public speaking much more than men and as a result, allowed their nerves to restrain them from raising their hand or stepping forward.
“Two things usually happen,” she said. “First is that women don’t pursue speaking so when they are forced to speak they don’t have enough experience to nail it. Second is that they play safe by presenting a cardboard-like presentation.”
“No one remembers a beige presenter. So we help women discover their natural strengths as a speaker, get over their fear and present with power, excitement and authenticity.
Speakeasy workshops consist of aspiring and current women leaders who didn’t just want to be better speakers but also wanted to end the secret breakdowns that preceded each speaking event. Their focus on addressing and vanquishing these fears is what sets it apart from the hundreds of other public speaking programs that equip women with speaking skills without tackling the root cause of the problem.
That root cause, said Munro, is a part of the brain known as the amygdala or lizard brain.
“We inherited the lizard brain a long time ago from reptiles and its function back then was to keep us safe and hidden from predators,” she explained. “There aren’t any sabretooths today but the lizard brain likes to keep busy.”
“Public speaking is the opposite of staying safe and hidden so the lizard brain screams for you to sit down before you look stupid. And because women fear being judged, standing up in public feels like being under attack.”
Each woman’s lizard brain relays a different and false message of unworthiness. Munro recalled a woman with an incredible presence who said her lizard had convinced her that she was invisible. Another woman’s lizard had sneered at her boots which the rest of the group had in fact been admiring.
“So even when a woman appears confident there are all sorts of messages playing in her head,” she said. “Speakeasy helps her tap into those messages and shush the lizard so she can fully engage with her audience.”
Research has found that women have a bigger amygdala than men which means they worry more about how others perceive them. And unlike men who are better at faking confidence and who liken a speaking session to a sports game, women equate it to visiting the dentist.
The good news is that the more frequently a certain experience is repeated, the less anxiety arises. But Munro was quick to point out that the lizard brain can never be completely eliminated.
“It’s just doing its job and you have to learn how to deal with it by recognising that the lizard doesn’t represent your capabilities,” she said. “The other myth is that you shouldn’t feel any fear if you’re doing something you love. But if you don’t feel fear then you’re staying in your comfort zone.”
“It’s when we push our limits and start doing bigger and bolder things that we move past the fear. So the discomfort is very important because it means you’re growing.”
For more information, visit www.inklingwomen.com.au.