My first memory of public speaking was in the fifth grade. I was to present an oral book report to the class of about thirty kids. My report was on the book The White Stag by Kate Seredy. I enjoyed the book and took pride in the report that I had written. Note cards were prepared with my entire speech neatly handwritten, but they were only for backup. I was to memorize my entire presentation, word-for-word.
Standing in front of the class I managed to recite the first line or two, but then my mind went blank. I couldn’t remember what went next. I completely froze. My teacher encouraged me to check my notecards, but I was lost. The words on the cards no longer made any sense. There was an awkward and deafening silence in the room. The eyes of my classmates were burning my skin. My feet felt like they were nailed to the floor. I couldn’t lift them, so I just shifted my weight from one leg to the other. The weight of my tiny body was unbearable. I was terrified and I just wanted to disappear.
In an attempt to help, the teacher asked all of the students to turn their desks around. She must have believed that if she averted the eyes of the student audience, my fear would subside and I would be able to get on with my report. The opposite occurred. Seeing a room full of kids with their backs to me was disturbing. I’ll never forget that scene.
I apologized to the teacher and sat down without completing my report. For the next twenty years I employed every tactic imaginable to avoid public speaking. And the longer I held out, the more fearful I became of the prospect. I was afraid of the memory of being afraid.
Years into my career it became readily apparent that my phobia was becoming a barrier to success. After reading self-help books and watching videos on the topic, I realized the only way to get over my fear of public speaking was to speak publicly. This revelation happened around the time that I began graduate school. The happy coincidence was that most of my classes required oral presentations, so there would be ample opportunity to speak in public.
I took advantage of every uncomfortable opportunity to speak in class. Along the way, I learned a few tricks to make me feel more comfortable in these situations and eventually the fear diminished. Now I actually enjoy the rush of speaking. With that said, please don’t turn your backs on me during a speech. I can’t promise that I’ll be there when you turn back around.
Fear of public speaking is called Glossophobia and it is one of the most popular phobias. Fear is a powerful, primal, instinctual emotion. It was essential to our survival when we were in danger of being eaten by predatory animals or attacked by invaders. Think of fear as a warning signal, without which we wouldn’t be here today. Unfortunately, fear has no practical application in public speaking or other aspects of modern life. It unconsciously influences our thought processes and biases and ultimately impacts our behavior.
Franklin D. Roosevelt wisely said, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” This is because we exhibit avoidance behavior at the mere memories of being afraid. I missed career opportunities because I avoided public speaking. In essence, I was afraid of being afraid. As Dr. Karl Albrecht explains, “Fear of fear probably causes more problems in our lives than fear itself.”
Let’s begin by looking at fear itself. What are we afraid of? Dr. Albrecht classifies fear into five categories:
Extinction: The fear of death. This is the big one because our brains are wired primarily for the self-interest of survival.
Mutilation: The fear of losing a body part or natural function. Survival is difficult enough with a perfectly functioning body and mind, so obviously losing functionality can be a detriment to our chances of survival.
Loss of Autonomy: The fear of being controlled by forces outside of our control. We like to feel as if we have control over our circumstances. This is why the thought of being imprisoned or enslaved is such a terrifying notion.
Separation: This is the fear of abandonment and rejection. It explains why being shunned or excommunicated is such a powerful punishment.
Ego-death: The fear of humiliation or loss of integrity. It elicits shame and self-disapproval.
While we can’t completely eliminate fear from life, we can learn techniques to deal with it. The first step is to identify which category of fear we are experiencing. This is important because some of the biggest decisions are made when we feel afraid. The next step is to challenge that fear with rational thought. Because fear is an autopilot trigger, we must counter that flawed thought processing system by activating our conscious mind to analyze the situation (somewhat) rationally.
Fear will often take us to the worst-case scenario, which typically has a low probability of occurring. Let your conscious mind explore the possibilities of positive outcomes and the rewards that come with them. Remember: the unbridled desire to succeed is far more powerful than the restrictive fear of failure.
My fear of public speaking was really the fear of humiliating myself or ego-death. But here’s the thing, at my ten-year reunion I asked some of my life-long friends and classmates if they remembered my oral book report fiasco. None of them did. And when I thought back on the class’ response after “humiliating” myself… I couldn’t remember any. I’m sure there was a snarky comment here or there, but in reality they didn’t care. I had experienced the worst-case scenario in that event and it really wasn’t that bad… yet, it affected the next twenty years of my life. I was simply afraid of being afraid.
Beware of the triggers of autopilot thinking: too little information, too much information, time pressure, emotional arousal and fear. These agents of influence are powerful enough to change your life.