There are very real reasons why public speaking is so uncomfortable for most people, both because of how our brains are ‘wired’, and also in how we relate to the outer world. Today I’m going to share with you some of the reasons why we feel anxious about public speaking.
Firstly, let’s look at what I call our brain’s fear timeline: our initial ‘wiring’, way back in the mists of time, our own past, and our future.
Our brains’ fear timeline
- Our ancestral past
In primitive times when we were cave-dwellers, our very survival was at stake if we became separated from or ostracised by our ‘tribe’. Being stared at or stalked by an enemy or a wild animal without back-up wasn’t a good thing! Those ancient feelings are still echoing through our systems today, and trigger basic survival instincts, the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ syndrome.
- Our own past
You may have learned to be afraid of public speaking through direct or indirect (our parents/friends/colleagues) experience. Your childhood too may have taught you that good behaviour or not ‘standing out’ gained you approval – and approval is essential for us to survive as small children. Any public speaking experience may therefore take you, perhaps subconsciously, right back to that survival fear. And if you’ve also directly experienced discomfort, you carry the baggage of your own public speaking ‘story’.
- Our future
When we’re faced with ‘future threat’ in our minds, we will always respond with anxiety. Always. Plus we usually compound the issue with this problem: we’re not afraid of the situation or event – we’re afraid of the feelings which thinking about that event triggers; e.g. if you have a wedding speech, or talk at work coming up, from the moment you know “you’re on”, you’ll experience anything from low-grade disturbance up to high stress. We therefore want to avoid those feelings because they’re very uncomfortable.
We also have future expectations of ourselves – or others have placed expectations upon us – and that burden can be hard to bear.
Now let’s move from the timeline to 5 other reasons for public speaking anxiety and fear.
1. We want to maintain our ‘face’
As human beings we all fear being, humiliated, rejected, or exposed as inadequate. Status and maintaining our ‘social self’ is very important as we grow into adulthood, so we try hard not to let anything fracture the carefully constructed persona (persona means ‘mask’) that we show the world. That’s why criticism can be so hard to take, because it disturbs our mask. Even when we actively ask for help, still can be tricky.
Speaking in public is one of the toughest challenges we face, because it forces us to stand up and ‘expose’ ourselves to our audience – a bit like those dreams where we’re standing naked in front of an audience. (For me, this dream usually has me about to go on stage to play the piano in a concert wearing totally inappropriate clothing, and worse, I haven’t learned the music properly, and it’s a really important gig).
2. Public speaking is not a conversation
When we’re talking to a friend or even in a small group, we get messages back from them cueing us how to respond; it’s a bit like a dance, and mostly we’re not even aware of it. But when we stand up and speak to a group, there’s either no feedback, or we get feedback which we can’t always decipher correctly: we’ve lost our cues. We can feel vulnerable and even abandoned up there on stage.
[However, when we speak to a group we should be ‘conversational’ which isn’t the same thing as having a conversation, and needs to be practised appropriately.]
3. We haven’t done enough preparation
For a planned presentation, knowing our content really well is key. If we don’t, we’ll be in our heads, and not with our audience, and they will be able to tell. Doing the work is unavoidable, if you want to appear professional and in control.
4. We’re simply self-conscious, not fearful
For some people it can be helpful to realize that you’re not in fact scared, you just get really self-conscious. The ways to fix this are to really understand that it’s not about you, that your audience is only there for themselves and don’t notice nearly as much as you think they do. So if you’re really ‘with’ your material, and it’s about them, your self-consciousness will quickly burn off.
5. We crave certainty. Our brains are always looking for certainty…and public speaking is an inherently uncertain activity! So we see it as a minefield, and with uncertainty comes anxiety.
So, it’s important to focus on the fact that confidence is a habit that we can learn. After years where scientists believed that our brains were fixed and static from adulthood, we now know that our brains are flexible and create new connections all the time. Your brain is also a pattern-making, habit-creating machine: one recent neuroscience study showed that it took only three repetitions of a routine to begin wiring it into our brains (called long-term potentiation). Each new moment contains the possibility of moving, thinking and reacting differently, if we allow it.