As the former CEO of both Match.com and Ask.com, Jim Safka is no stranger to being a leader. Throughout his career, you would’ve found him sitting at the front of boardrooms guiding meetings, answering questions during TV interviews, and delivering presentations in front of large audiences.
But there was once a time when the now successful executive thought his career would never fully take off. And it was all due to his fear of public speaking.
In an interview with STAT News, he shared that it all started when he was in high school. Any time he was supposed to be giving a class presentation, he’d call in sick. He chalked it up to being a nervous kid, hoping that it was something that would pass.
But as he moved into one of his early jobs as a brand manager, he found his fear had followed him. Though he was expected to provide insight during team meetings, he found he could barely muster the courage to say even a few words.
Safka knew he needed to find a way to get over his fear of public speaking if he wanted to keep moving up in his career. So he sought out many of the same solutions most of us have given a try once or twice.
He downed a few drinks before meetings and even tried taking a Xanax. But no luck- he was still a nervous wreck.
That is until his doctor prescribed Propranolol, a beta-blocker medication that can prevent an adrenaline surge when you’re nervous.
Safka mentions the effect was so positive he even volunteered to speak at a meeting, a huge shift from where he had been previously.
Safka isn’t the only high-powered executive who has used beta-blockers to give them a confidence boost before a board meeting or press interview. Fellow CEO Richard Branson mentioned the medication in his memoir The Virgin Way, noting that as his career progressed it became nearly impossible to avoid public speaking:
“One inescapable reality of business life is that the more successful you become and the higher up the corporate ladder you climb, the more frequent the requirement for you to step up to the microphone. Unlike in government circles, where the ability to deliver a great stump speech gets a lot of otherwise distinctly mediocre politicos elected, in the private sector, as helpful a talent as it may be, I doubt that too many people ever got hired or promoted strictly on the basis of their public-speaking abilities. The other sad irony is that while teleprompters are a wonderful crutch for those really big speeches- with a teleprompter, a few beta-blockers, and the ability to read, just about anyone can turn in a reasonably respectable performance – those little glass screens are not something you can easily swing with smaller audiences.”
Propranolol works by suppressing the hormone norepinephrine. In turn, your body won’t experience side effects like shakiness or sweatiness. Traditionally, the medication is used to treat hypertension and angina. When used for performance anxiety like this, however, it’s prescribed at a much lower dose.
Safka noted that Propranolol helped him ultimately overcome his fear of public speaking, saying, “I honestly believe it changed my life”.
Though he doesn’t turn to the medication as often as he wants did, he mentioned that he keeps them on hand just in case.