We are increasingly fearful of public speaking because it means risking our group membership, according to cognitive psychologist and business neuroscientist, Dr Lynda Shaw.
It is estimated that somewhere between 40 – 75 percent of us are afraid of public speaking, supported by the famous survey by ‘R.H. Bruskin Associates* which showed that 41 percent of respondents were afraid of public speaking whilst only 19 percent stated that they were afraid of death. In fact, speech anxiety is so common that there is a formal term for it – glossophobia.
Shaw explains: “The desire to be part of a group at work is extremely powerful because it contributes to a large part of our social identity and to our sense of who we are. Intelligence/ gossip are the lifeblood of many groups and can travel at a fast pace in organisations affecting our reputation. With so much uncertainty in this current age, group membership is increasingly vital. Effectively we want to stand out less and merge into a group more. This affects our ability and desire for public speaking.”
Many areas of the brain affect our public speaking. “Memory is hugely involved in bringing insecurities to the surface by recalling occasions of angst, embarrassment or nerve-racking experiences. The limbic system which is a major part of emotional processing, especially the amygdala which is associated with fear and memory, is involved in our fight or flight response to threat. The prefrontal cortex consciously assimilates higher executive functions such as planning, decision making and moderating our social behaviour. For example, in worrying ‘if I don’t do well in this presentation then my job may be on the line.’ Any or all of these may result in a rush of adrenalin, creating symptoms such as shaky hands, dry mouth, a red face and racing heartbeat that many of us will be familiar with.”
Shaw believes not only are we more afraid of public speaking and outing ourselves on a platform in front of our peers, but we are increasingly less likely to give our opinions to our colleagues because of increasing levels of stress and a lower tolerance of different opinions. “We are fearful of telling people what we think because of the repercussions we believe this has on our group membership, magnified further by the power of online communities and social media. It has become so easy to shame people anonymously.”
Shaw points out that children often love the limelight but as adults many of us try to hide from performing. “We know that between the ages of 2-7 children are egocentric and the majority are happy with the limelight to be on them all day, every day, but as we grow older there is a clear developmental stage where as a child we want to include other children in our games and begin to care what others think and feel. The importance of social relationships is a key stage in development, but can result in self-consciousness of varying degrees.
Shaw advises we try to embrace public speaking. “Fear can do things such as cause us to speed up when speaking in public, a sort of “I’m going to get this over as soon as possible” attitude, whilst possibly throwing away an opportunity we could have used to shine. Not addressing this fear is a sure way to undermine your own success. Being able to ‘own the room’ will grant you numerous advantages in your professional life as it will help you connect better with people and will enable you to shine.”
1: Look at the audience as your friends. In actual fact they want you to do a good job. Focus on the friendly faces who are smiling and nodding. They will help give you confidence.
2: Identify any nerve-wracking memories associated with public speaking and evaluate whether it really mattered in the grand scheme of things.
3: The fear you are feeling is just like a bully. You might think it has the power over you but when you confront your fear head on, it should fade away.
4: There is no greater rush than doing something positive and releasing those endorphins after doing something you might have been afraid of, whether that be a presentation to your colleagues or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Have you ever heard someone say they regret doing a skydive?
5: As Winston Churchill said “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts”. It’s true, our mistakes help us grow as people and give us the knowledge to make us stronger.
6: It is important to surround yourself with people who want you to succeed. This positivity that will surround you will give you a more determined outlook and will help you persevere, despite your fears.
7: Use visualisation. Try and imagine yourself conquering the fear that you are so afraid of. Then imagine the worst that could happen, and then think of yourself overcoming the hurdle with ease. Even if the worst case scenario does happen, it’s not the end of the world.
8: Always prepare, especially if you are making a speech or presentation. There is an old cliché that says ‘if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail’, and it’s true. The more prepared you are the more likely you are to do well. And remember the audience doesn’t know what you are going to say, so if you forget something just keep going as long as it still makes sense!