We all have fears.
Spiders, heights, clowns, flying, bugs, needles, water, germs, dogs, the dark…
And public speaking.
I want you to imagine walking out onto a large stage. There are thousands of people in the audience, silently waiting for you to reach the microphone. The spotlight settles on you, cameras at the back and sides of the theatre are focused on you and ready to beam your image and voice to millions of others watching online and on television. You see a loved one staring back supportively from the crowd. You grab the mic, take a big breath, and open your mouth.
How are you feeling? Did just reading that make your heart race and palms sweaty? Chances are that it did. It’s estimated that roughly 75% of people suffer from some level of glossophobia, or the fear of public speaking.
In fact, most of us rate it as the thing we fear the most. Death comes in at number two. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, people would rather be in the casket at a funeral than giving the eulogy.
That’s a remarkable fact: we’d rather be dead than give a speech.
Cause for Concern
Impossible to say for sure, but I have my suspicions:
- Public speaking creates an involuntary, visceral response that we feel deep in our bodies. We blush, sweat, stammer. Our heart beats faster, our stomach does somersaults, our mouth is dry.
- Death is the opposite of reacting and feeling. There is no embarrassment or response.
Even the best speakers in the world admit to getting nervous beforehand. There is some level of stage fright for everyone.
Why? Because we all want to be accepted, liked, and admired. We want to impress, inspire, and charm our audience, whomever they may be.
And we fear the opposite of that happening. Of looking silly, foolish, or stupid. Being rejected or pitied. Any fear at its core is perceived as a threat to our survival. That may sound a bit melodramatic as it relates to public speaking, but survival doesn’t always mean life or death. It can refer to surviving the moment or experience on a physical, social, emotional, and mental level.
If you’ve ever lived through an embarrassing speech or presentation, you know it can feel like you’re going to die. The survival here refers not to physical death, but death in the eyes of your audience. Death of status, reputation, and acceptance.
And our fight or flight response can kick in the same way it does during a disaster or attack.
Playing It Safe
Asked to speak, sing, share a story, debate, or present, and most of us immediately feel unease. Anxious. The desire to run away.
We replay the worst-case scenario over and over again in our heads. If it does not go well — if it is not well received by our audience — we are rejected, and we fear that more than anything else.
Historically, rejection was a very real threat to our literal survival. To be excluded from the group meant away from shared resources and community, and that could mean actual death.
Our instinctive response still treats it that way.
To avoid that possibility, we find every reason to avoid it. To not stick our necks out. To not risk our position within the group.
When the opportunity arises, our hand doesn’t go up, we don’t volunteer, offer an opinion, engage, or take a chance.
We don’t lead.
We may question our decision to play it safe, but our fear overrides everything else. And the more often we sit out, the easier it gets. People stop asking. Opportunities get fewer and further between.
Every time you snuff out your expression, you’re building a barrier that makes it that much harder next time. Over the course of a lifetime, that barrier can become insurmountable.
And it can start very early on.
Did you grow up in environments where your voice was supported? Were you encouraged to express yourself? Or was your voice silenced? Did you see the voices of others supported?
Ask the right questions and recognize your patterns, and you’re able to adapt.
Your voice can be reclaimed.
Embrace the Fear
Explore your relationship with public speaking rather than avoid it.
What’s really at stake if you are less than perfect? How do you define failure? How do you define success?
Your fear is rational from an evolutionary viewpoint, but irrational through a modern lens. So don’t hide from it. Welcome it. Push through it.
It may take many experiences and the right group of people, but you’ll eventually recognize that you can feel uncomfortable and still feel through it. Success is not defined by your comfort level while doing something.
Find opportunities where the stakes are lower, where failure carries little or no real consequences. Practice makes perfect.
You are an adaptable person. So adapt.
Your voice is as important as any other. So use it.
Your relationship to the value, capacity, efficacy, and ease of expression adapt.
And this has a catalyzing effect: when humans see others expressing themselves in potentially vulnerable places, it gives them permission to consider it in their own minds and bodies. They can begin to confront some of their own hesitations and create opportunities to stand up for their own expression.
Which brings us back to that stage from the beginning.
Thousands of people waiting for you to speak. The spotlight, all eyes, and cameras settle on you. You grab the mic, take a big breath, and that sense of danger, rejection, and fear dissolves with the exhale. You are present and connected. You trust in yourself. You know your ability, permission, and capacity to express. To use your voice.
And so, you do.