Rather extreme statements. But it is true that more people list public speaking as their number one fear than anything else – it ranks above spiders, snakes, flying, and, yes, above death. (The statement about the coffin being preferable to the eulogy is stretching the logic a little far, but, nevertheless, that statement is often made in speaking circles.)
Why? Why are we so very fearful of standing in front of an audience, and speaking?
Our reaction is a very primitive and physiological one. Adrenaline and cortisol course through our bodies, causing blood to leave our bellies and any area that is not critical to our response during a situation of threat. Stomachs have butterflies and mouths go dry. Our hearts pump faster and harder, and we breathe rapidly. Hands sweat. Our legs ready for action. We go into flight, fight or freeze mode.
It is thought that our bodies react to an audience, instinctively, as if they were a pack of wolves, facing us, on our own, all alone.
When people are asked why they are nervous, they don’t necessarily envisage a pack of wolves, but they do imagine that they will be judged (which is just as bad as wolves) – not good enough, don’t know enough, not adding any value, wasting our time, etc. Isn’t that sad? But it’s true. And, just as in the wolves analogy, all eyes will be on you. People imagine that an audience is waiting to pounce on the first mistake, that they’re just waiting for you to fail.
“Freeze” is the only viable option. We can’t flee and we can’t fight. We stay put. Often our knees feel locked.
Our hands shake and our legs turn to jelly if we don’t flee – they’re ready to run, after all.
We find ourselves, as freshman speakers, in a predicament. Just how do we give a speech when we are so paralysed by fear? How do we get to the stage of overcoming that paralysis?
Start by thinking carefully about exactly what it is you actually fear. Dealing with it is the subject of another blog. ☺