Public speaking is frequently named in surveys as one of our top five fears.
According to Yougov over half of the population is afraid of public speaking, with 20% very afraid.
There are a number of theories about why this should be.
Most start with the idea that we fear “being judged”. This matters because deep down our primeval brain fears being expelled or ostracised from a group and left to fend for ourselves.
Standing on a stage with so many eyes trained upon us also awakens subconscious fears that we may be the hunted “prey” – you fear that your audience wants to eat you, apparently.
Undoubtedly, feeling fear in this situation can be powerful and real. The so-called “reptilian”, or oldest part of your brain is responsible for instinctively producing feelings of fight-or-flight that can impact your physiology, giving you everything from sweaty palms to an increased heart rate.
But luckily we also have a more recent, powerfully developed part of the brain that provides the counterbalance of logic and rational thinking. And it’s this part of your brain that can start to query how much power you want to give to the word “fear”?
It’s widely quoted, for example, that surveys show we “fear” public speaking more than death.
Except it isn’t true.
The hard-to-find specific reference for this mysterious survey merely asked people – unprompted – to list things they were afraid of. Hardly surprising that death and dying wasn’t the first thing that came to mind.
As the comedian Jerry Seinfeld pointed out – if you really feared public speaking more than death, then you’d rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy at a funeral.
As we discover many times in our public speaking workshops, the significance and power that we attribute to words like “fear” is hugely important. Words trigger feelings and feelings trigger physiological responses.
And whilst those of us who are coaches and trainers might be delighted to serve the fifty-six percent of the population who “fear” public speaking, we should equally avoid exacerbating or exploiting the issue.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word fear has four meanings.
1. An unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm.
Unless you’re a particularly divisive political agitator, you’re unlikely to experience true danger, pain or harm from public speaking.
2. A feeling of anxiety concerning the outcome of something or the safety of someone.
“I’m worried my speech may not go down well”.
It may not. But there’s an equal if not better chance it will be a barnstormer and you’ll bring the house down.
3. The likelihood of something unwelcome happening.
“My speech might not go down well and I’ll be embarrassed”.
Possibly. And embarrassment is most definitely an unpleasant emotion. But equally it tends to be short-lived and it’s not really a source of danger, pain or physical harm.
4. A mixed feeling of dread and reverence. As in “fear of God”.
An audience with Jose Mourinho perhaps? Otherwise, not really relevant.
Your power to control the physiological responses to the idea of “fear” is greater than you may think.
Beth L Buelow points out that we often use the label “fear” when “discomfort” may be a less threatening and more accurate description.
If you are experiencing a true fight-or-flight moment, she suggests, you should “question the emotion and sit with it for a bit”. Do you actually feel threatened, endangered, in pain or just uncomfortable?
“I’m terrified of public speaking” and “public speaking is uncomfortable for me” produce two entirely different responses. Being “uncomfortable” for fifteen minutes is the same as a short journey on the Underground during rush hour. Not great, but no more than anyone else has to put up with.
By the same token, the way you interpret the actions of audience members can add to or diminish how much discomfort you feel when speaking. You can’t control, predict or account for every audience member’s state of mind. And it’s not all about you as a speaker. So if you notice someone who doesn’t appear to be paying full attention, invent your own reasons as to what might be going on with them. They’re just as valid.
That man yawning in the second row?
He’s not bored – he’s been fighting off a hangover all day but was determined to make it to your session.
That woman constantly looking at her mobile phone?
She’s not distracted – she’s tweeting about how wonderful your speech is and what an inspirational figure you are.
Those two whispering at the back?
They’re discussing whether they should book you for their AGM because you’d be a perfect fit.
That man noisily and distractedly eating snacks in the front row?
He has low blood sugar and needs a boost so he can concentrate on every word you’re saying.
What you tell yourself makes a big difference to how you feel about speaking in public. So take control of your fight-or-flight instincts.
If “fear” of public speaking makes an appearance, try challenging your own thoughts and challenging your own language.
Franklin Roosevelt was right – the only thing you have to fear is fear itself.