Better dead than… give a speech?

That’s what most surveys say anyway, time and time again when asked about their fears people rank public speaking as number one, and death usually comes in around four or five.  But how can we make sense of such an extreme and consistent response?  Wallace and I talked about this on his Sunday Morning show on Radio Live this week.  (Click here for audio of the interview…)

But first, the numbers.  The research has been replicated quite a few times, but the original source seems to be a poll of 1000 Americans in 1973 and then again in 1993.  (Click here for a summary of the results.)  While the percentages change slightly, from 40{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87} in 1973 to 45{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87} in 1993, citing public speaking as their biggest fear, the ranking of different fears remains the same: Public speaking; Heights; Financial Problems; Deep Water, in that order, with Death coming in at fifth.

Why then are we so afraid of giving a speech?  Well when you dig a bit deeper you find that what people are actually afraid of is being embarrassed, making a fool of themselves or otherwise being uncovered as incompetent or flawed in some way.  Some people also end up simply being afraid of feeling anxiety, or others noticing that they are anxious.

The core problem here though is shame, and the power of the social emotions.  We are fundamentally herd animals.  Humans need other humans, and many of our emotions evolved to moderate and guide us in our social interactions and to maintain our connection with the group.  And for most of human history a human being on it’s own was a dead human being.  So shame, and the fear of exclusion or judgement by a group of people, can have an incredibly powerful effect over our behavior.  It’s actually being shunned or judged negatively by the group that feels like a fate worse than death.

So what to do if you have to give a speech?  Well knowing that this response  is normal can help.  And there are also some commonly prescribed tips for overcoming a fear of public speaking:

  • Make sure it’s important.  It’s much easier to do something hard if it matters.  Think about the long term benefits of giving the speech or presentation.  Why it matters to your career, or your relationships.
  • Practice, practice, practice.  If you’ve never given a speech, practice with a small group, or just a partner, flatmate or friend.  It’s pretty clear that when people keep doing something anxiety provoking the fear decreases over time.  The nervousness might remain but it becomes manageable.
  • Prepare, and know your topic.  This might seem obvious, but sometimes our avoidance can lead us to avoid any preparation until the last minute.  Be familiar enough with what you want to say that you don’t have to read it, but by all means refer to notes.
  • Don’t expect perfection.  Anxiety will make us want to get it perfect.  But the best speeches are natural, human and even a little bit flawed.  If you stumble or trip up, keep going.  Most people won’t notice, or judge you.  Remember nearly half of people hate giving speeches too!
  • Learn some simple breathing exercises.  It really helps to attend to the physical side of anxiety and the easiest way to do this is by monitoring and regulating your breathing.  If all else fails, take a deep breath.

And above all remember that your worth as a human being is not being measured by your speaking ability in that moment.  Like anything we all need practice to become good at things, and even the most seasoned public performers suffer from anxiety and nervousness before a performance.  They’ve simply learned to channel the energy to focus and prepare well.

“There are two types of speakers. Those who get nervous and those who are liars.” ― Mark Twain


Leave a Comment

  • Todd November 30, 2013, 3:52 am

    I’ve always got really nervous before giving a speech. I don’t really know why as I’m pretty good at them in general, and people always say it was a good speech (best man speeches, presentations for work etc), nevertheless I still get nervous. The best thing I started doing to help was practice the speech over and over, and it made me feel lots more confident and certainly reduced my nerves a bit. Good cue cards as well as a back up in case you go completely blank are also recommended. Another good tip I was told was to simply pause and look at the back of the room above everyone’s heads, and to take a deep breath. Sometimes you can talk way too fast when you are nervous, so it’s good to take specific pauses during the speech, no-one notices at all, in fact I think it makes the speech even better.

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