Gregory Olsen, a partner at Lenox Advisors in New York City, remembers the first time in his career he had to speak in public. "My throat went dry and I felt myself choking on my words," he recalls.
The event was a weekend workshop for associates: Olsen had been named his firm's Rookie of the Year and was asked to speak about his early career success. He was given a week to prepare, but even so, he says, it was a struggle: "I just remember thinking I could do better."
Olsen made a commitment to improve - and over the years, he says, he honed his speaking skills with numerous public appearances and television interviews. Even so, some level of apprehension remains. "If you're not nervous," observes Olsen, "I think something is wrong with you."
Although most advisors probably prefer to spend their time working with clients, many face demands for public presentations. Planners who work in large organizations often have to make regular appearances in front of colleagues. Advisors may be invited to speak to peers at industry conferences, and many speak to various groups to introduce themselves to prospective clients.
VIDEO REALITY CHECK
Some people grit their teeth and just do it. "I guess I'm the type of person who sucked it up and did what I was supposed to do," says Maureen Whelan, a planner in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. Early on, "even asking questions in grammar school was intimidating."
She found help through a graduate school course in which student presentations were recorded. When viewing them, she found that how she felt was very different from how she came across. That lesson is "something that I've carried with me to this day," she says.
Most people are not nearly as bad in front of an audience as they believe they are, says Karen Kangas Dwyer, assistant director of the School of Communication at University of Nebraska-Omaha and author of iConquer Speech Anxiety. The school's speech programs record students "just for that purpose," she says.
Olsen had a different method. "I would get in front of a mirror in my living room and I would talk," he says. The technique allowed him to practice making eye contact. It also let him watch for his own tics, such as rocking back and forth.
"Practicing in front of a mirror helps you improve on your delivery," Dwyer says. She advises speakers to ask themselves how much anxiety they are feeling - and to pinpoint the source. If it's physiological sensations, deep breathing from the diaphragm can help.
Donald Patrick, managing director of Integrated Financial Group in Atlanta, does deep breathing exercises before stepping in front of an audience. It calms him - he used to be "terrified," he says - but not to the point that all the adrenalin is gone. "You want that," he says, "just not so it's overwhelming."
An overwhelming fear of public speaking almost derailed Joseph Kelly's transition to a financial planning career. "Speaking in front of people was the reason I almost decided not to do it," recalls Kelly, a CFP with Valic Financial Advisors in Bordentown, N.J.
He moved into planning relatively late in life after years of running his family's retail wine and liquor business. Kelly, a baseball fan, says he took comfort from a comment made once by former New York Mets pitcher Tug McGraw after a loss - that years from now, nobody would remember that particular game.
"When I think like that," says Kelly, "It kind of puts me at ease."
But Kelly says his most important weapon against fear is the conviction that, on his subject, he's the "smartest person in the room" - specifically, the realization that people have come to learn important information from him. "Knowledge is power," he says. "It makes me feel good."
"That's cognitive restructuring," Dwyer says. Anxiety arises, she explains, when people tell themselves they can't speak in public. Changing that cognition simply requires convincing yourself of the truth: You can do it.
Although both sexes can be afflicted by fear, Dwyer says men are particularly susceptible to thinking they'll fail. "In most men, the source of their speech anxiety is their thoughts." (Women tend to be more affected by emotions, she says.)
Acknowledging the anxiety was how Jason Romano, a principal with Moss Adams Wealth Advisors in Los Angeles, dealt with it. When he first started speaking to groups, Romano approached his audience honestly. "I would admit to being a little nervous about speaking in public," he says, asking his listeners to "bear with me."
Romano has spent years watching others make presentations and tries to incorporate the practices of good speakers he has seen. When he has some quiet time, he practices his delivery, including the nonverbal parts. "It's important to simulate the physical activity. It's very much like exercise, muscle memory," he says.
When making a speech, Romano likes to pause for emphasis. It's a technique he learned from watching presentations by Steve Jobs. "He was great at long pauses," Romano says.
Even if you never match Jobs' ability to mesmerize an audience, experienced speakers offer some simple ways to make a speech better.
"Make it a story," Patrick says. People will relate to human narrative more easily than to a recitation of facts.
Keep your remarks short to respect your audience's time. Nobody wants to hear a speaker drone on.
Often, speakers are told to begin with a joke. That doesn't mean you have to rival Louis C.K. If the setting is appropriate, consider putting your audience at ease with a light remark. Kelly recalls beginning a presentation in the New York area with, "I just want to let you know that I'm a Phillies fan. Don't hold that against me."
Many advisors conclude with a question-and-answer session. Despite the unpredictability, planners say they find it the least intimidating format. "If people ask questions, it means they were interested in what I had to say," Whelan says.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE ...
Although some experienced advisors get more speaking invitations than they can handle, people trying to build a practice may have to seek out these opportunities. Local groups, such as the PTA and the Rotary Club, may need speakers. Public libraries and local colleges may also want educational presentations on financial topics.
Olsen says he once gave a speech at a college in New York that resulted in a longtime client; years later, that man's son is also a client.
And don't forget professional organizations. The Financial Planning Association of New York, for example, provides members with information about speaking opportunities.
There are plenty of resources available to help advisors deal with speech anxiety. Toastmasters International has 13,500 clubs worldwide where members work together to improve their speaking skills. Fees are low and you'll have group support.
If you want a more structured setting, many community colleges offer courses in public speaking. If you prefer to go it alone, there are countless books, audio programs and videos that can provide guidance.
Whichever method you choose, you'll need to devote time and effort to mastering the craft. As Dwyer says: "You're never going to conquer it by sitting there and wishing."
Joseph Lisanti, a Financial Planning contributing writer in New York, is former editor-in-chief of Standard & Poor's weekly newsletter, The Outlook.