Yesterday I responded to this question from Yolisa Bam on a website called Quora.
The simple answer is that public speaking can create a strong flight, fight or freeze response in us. We see it as a threat in someway to us. We can feel easily overwhelmed by our thumping hearts and the departure of our normal brain function. I had a soldier on one of my public speaking courses once who said “I’d rather be fighting the Taliban than doing public speaking”. He wasn’t joking
The more complex answer can be broken into at least five areas;
- Misunderstanding what is happening in an audience when we stand up in front of them and getting it radically wrong,
- our evolutionary bias towards over-seeing threat,
- the excessive pressures we put on ourselves,
- The tendency to dwell in fear,
- and finally the lack of speaking experience
1. Audiences listen in a different way to a normal conversation. Audiences listen in a passive way rather than active way. So in audiences you see blank faces EVEN when the audience is really interested. Blank faced audiences are normal. Check it out next you are in the audience. What do you do with your face? You probably don’t smile and nod all the time. You just listen. But speakers see those blank faces as threatening. They look bored or look like they are judging you. People say that they can work out what the audience is thinking. And it’s always negative. A yawn becomes proof of the speaker being boring (that audience member may have young children, or had a bad night or done a long working week).
So those blank faces create a difficult environment UNTIL you see them as just listening faces and get used to the change in listening styles from a normal conversation to an audience style.. And that goes hand in hand with the next point.
2. 99% of our brain was developed before we got language 70,000 years ago. It took awhile to get language. We emerged as mammals 300 million years ago. So that’s a bit like travelling the roughly 300 miles from Edinburgh to Bath where I live and only getting language capabilities just as we reach the door knocker on my front door. Language is very new.
So we have a developed a brain in the time of huge threat – the land of “Will I have lunch or will I be lunch?”.
We had to be really great at threat detection otherwise we would be gonners. We developed colour vision, not to see a beautiful world but to see snakes better. The primates who saw snakes better survived.
So our brain is good at threat. Too good at threat. We oversee it massively. We think we know what people our thinking about us an dit’s negative. So put the threat biased brain in front of a blank faced audience – then not surprisingly we get the threat response going. Even if the threat isn’t real – we are good at making it up. We need to calm that threat response down but we don’t, because of the next point.
3. We put excessive pressures on ourselves. We massively over-think the whole process. We give ourselves a hard time about having a hard time.
So we say to ourselves
• I can’t go red. They will judge me. They will see my weakness
• I have to be fluent and speak like I write
• I’ve got to be funny
• I can’t make a mistake – I’ve got to be perfect.
• Everyone will notice everything I do and the bits of mybody I don’t like.
• I have to be someone I am not. I have to perform.
We treat ourselves harshly. If we treated our friends like we treat ourselves – we would have NO friends. The inner critic is in charge. And the trouble is that we believe our own thoughts. As David Bohm points out “Do we have thoughts or do thoughts have us”. So we feel like we are not _________ enough. Not good enough, not together enough, not handsome enough, not interesting enough.
In many ways we feel lacking, and we feel vulnerable. It’s very close to feeling shamed.
Points 1, 2 and 3 make a toxic soup for public speaking. It's no wonder that 70% of us feel anxious around public speaking. And yet there is more to add to this bad tasting recipe.
4. We dwell a lot in fear. We are great at worrying. We have anxiety about the future and we ruminate about past disasters. We catastrophise about our presentations and imagine the worst. As our brains got bigger we got better at worrying. We have the cinema of humiliation in our heads, the cinema of failure etc. We remember previous bad memories just before we speak.
5. It’s a simple point. Lack of skills and practice. We are not used to public speaking because we want to avoid it. So we do it and then feel grim about it. And when we practise and practise – we can just feel even worse. Because if we are not careful, we are locking in the fear.
We need to practise differently. We need to see it differently
We need to learn a new set of skills before we get to making speeches. We need to learn to be the centre of attention and learn to BE in public before we learn to speak in public. We need to re-think what we are doing. The audience are NOT bored – they are just listening. You are special but NOT that important– everyone is NOT thinking of you or even staring at you. They are just listening to you a bit or maybe they are thinking about Leicester becoming Premiership champions or an old boyfriend or their next holiday. In other words we need to move from being overly self-conscious to being ok being the centre of attention. We need to move public speaking from the land of performance to the land of just having a chat.
We need to make it simpler. And that can be done.