Monday, April 6, 2009

The imaginary fear of public speaking

The word that is most synonymous with public speaking is fear - an odd word for an activity that so rarely causes death or bloodshed. Why is there so much terror involved? What is it that brings on the pounding heart, sweaty palms, bodily shaking, and the trademark trembling voice? Here are three of the most common reasons that people cite as contributing to their fear of speaking in public.



Eye Contact


Eye contact is a powerful thing. If someone walks by you on the street and locks eyes until they completely pass you by that’s a hostile act …… unless it’s accompanied by a smile. The smile has the power to change the context. Similarly many speakers and entertainment turn the power of eye contact into a truly positive thing.  So the message is that eye contact has impact, but it can be made positive rather than negative.




Some people have a shy side and speaking in public brings that side out. The truth of the matter is that it is not the act of speaking that brings out the shyness, it is the person who makes the decision to be shy. Shyness is a learned condition just as the word “ow” is a learned word. It can be held at a deep and unconscious level but it is learned and it can be unlearned as long as the person is willing to do some unlearning.


Saying the wrong thing


No-one wants to say the wrong thing and that driving desire to stay on track can cause many presenters to fumble, stumble and crumble. We take this to be normal and reasonable. What is interesting that when you are talking to someone at dinner or a social event you also want to avoid saying the wrong thing but people don’t usually disintegrate at dinner parties. Wanting to avoid saying the wrong thing is not a fundamental pressure that is a constant element of public speaking it is simply something that we choose to create in the situation.


There are many other aspects connected to fear and public speaking that I cannot cover in the space of a blog but the over-riding question is: are any of these fears legitimate and/or insurmountable? The simple answer is that while fear is too complex a human emotion to be dealt any definitive pronouncements, the fear of speaking in public is no more legitimate than the fear of driving a car. As long as they are willing, people can be cured of the fear of public speaking, and it can often be done quickly and easily. How this is done depends on the individual and a wide variety of details, but in most circumstances demystifying the subject and applying simple techniques can take people past this curious fear and to a point where speaking in public is easily done and (shock!) enjoyable. 



1 comment:

  1. In my workshops and trainings over the years I've often started by polling the group - "10 minutes from right now, would you rather walk across hot coals barefoot or speak in front of 100 people?"

    People tend to choose the hot coals, which perplexed me for some time until I realized the reason why.

    It's because potential wounds to the feet are seen as less painful than the potential for carrying memories of public humiliation around for the rest of your life.

    And, yes, stage fright and fear of public speaking are actually easily "cured".

    David Portney
    Public Speaking Training Expert


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