Why we’re afraid of public speaking – an anthropological perspective

The fear of public speaking is almost universal
The fear of public speaking is almost universal
Let’s face it, speaking in front of a large, or even small, group of strangers is a terrifying thing. Some people would even prefer death to a major public speaking gig. So what is it that makes us dread public speaking and what can we do to overcome that fear and become confident?

In this series of blog posts we will be exploring the biological roots of our fear of public speaking and offer original & effective remedies to build confidence. We will be making the body the key focus of our attention and use concepts and theories that very rarely make it into the world of public performance training. We call this approach Body Confidence.

As with any life sciences explanation we have to begin with Darwin’s theory of evolution. For starters, as a species humans evolved to be dependent on their social bonds for their survival. This means that deep within us we still unconsciously believe that any social engagement with a large audience carries with it a huge risk of rejection and, well, ultimately death. Think about it – for over 150,000 years of our history we were strolling savannas in small groups of hunter-gatherers whose only chance of catching a meal and/or not being one was to stick together with other members of our tribe.

To maximise our chances of making it through the day and night we developed infinitely complex social bonds, reciprocities, ranks, rituals and cultures. This approach worked out very well for humans, after all there are over 7 billion of us on this planet. However, as with any highly social species the emphasis on social engagement made us very vulnerable to how we are being perceived by other people. Being seen can be, and often is, very distressing. Standing in front of a public we are putting everything at stake: our status, the state of our health, our skill to impress; and if these are not as good as we’d like them to be they are very likely to be spotted and impact on our future. Makeup, hipster beards, fancy hats, ties, padded shoulder jackets: are all tools derived from this instinct to favourably manipulate our social image.

Being in front of a group from the perspective of our biological ancestry is a matter of life and death, and our bodies are very quick to remind us about it. From the body’s perspective, being seen by a group of relative or absolute strangers is probably the most risky thing that one can do. It triggers three potential nervous system responses: freeze, fight-or-flight, or full engagement. Areas of the brain controlling these three kinds of our response to public speaking are called the Reptilian, Limbic and Neo-cortex parts of the brain. In the next post we will be investigating how these work and influence our stage presence.

So what? In knowing this you can instantly relax. It’s not your fault; it’s normal to be scared, once you understand these 3 you can pick the appropriate response, which is the secret of great public speakers, whether conscious or unconscious.

A story of three brains

All of these three brain areas are continuously scanning our environment for safety, and what is most interesting is that all of them have a different way to “give you permission, or not” to be impactful as a speaker. But how do they do that?

  • The Reptilian Brain controls the oldest part of our nervous system, the one to do with breathing, heart rate etc. It is primitive and yet has a great influence on other two systems. Like them, it’s very interested in keeping you out of trouble. If all is well you barely even notice that boring fellow, however as soon as it senses danger that the two other systems failed to deal with, it sends your body into freeze. This is the most primitive and the last resort response to keep us safe.
  • The limbic system is where your emotional richness is. When you are safe it allows you to be compelling, empathetic and speak with great impact. Your face is radiant, your eyes engaging, your gestures rich and articulate, and you feel excited. When you are in danger it is the limbic system that triggers the fight or flight response – the reaction that is most common in the world of public speaking. We all know the tingly hands and knees, butterflies in the stomach, short breath, increased perspiration, blank faces and blank minds that happen just before public performance.

So ‘how does this help me?’ you may ask. Next time you are about to give a speech or have a job interview, remember that the nerves are there for a good reason and are part of your 150,000 year old human intelligence. It’s simply your body warning you that what is about to happen is very important for your survival. By learning to accept your nerves and their physiological consequences (perspiration, increased heart rate, short breath, blankness etc.) you stop struggling and open yourself up to succeeding. Acceptance is the first step to confidence in public speaking, step two is to directly teach your nervous system how to feel safe in front of an audience. This will be the subject of the next issue of this blog series.

If you would like practical coaching on how to apply this understanding to improve your public speaking, check out my 1 day Body Confidence workshops.

This blog post was also published on the Ginger Public Speaking website.

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