A friend recently told me that fear of public speaking, or glossophobia, was the number one human fear. He was trying to reassure me, as I’d been feeling anxious about a presentation I had to give at a coaching workshop.
I was relieved and sceptical at the same time. So I looked it up and it was true: some research suggests that human beings fear public speaking more than we fear death.
The American comedian Jerry Seinfeld said that what this means is that when we go to a funeral, we’d rather be in the coffin than doing the eulogy!
But perhaps our fear of public speaking (or stage fright) and fear of death aren’t as separate as we think they are.
For millions of years, human beings lived in a world filled with threats, such as large predators and starvation. A way of defending ourselves was to live in groups so that we could alert and protect one another. Our ancestors relied on the group for survival – thus rejection by the group meant death, or its imminent threat.
Even today we rely on human cooperation for our survival and we remain very much social creatures who measure our success and status by comparing ourselves to others.
I chose fear of public speaking as the topic of my presentation and asked the group the following questions: Why do we fear public speaking so much? What is the root of the fear? And what can we do to overcome (or minimise) it?
What came up was fear of rejection, failure, shame, isolation – and that practice is the best if not the only way to conquer the fear.
As several performers and public speakers have said, the fear never goes away; you just learn to cope with it.
I also asked the following question: As coaches, how can we help clients who come to us with fear of public speaking?
Some of the participants replied that they wouldn’t coach such clients at all because they viewed this as therapy rather than coaching territory. I believe in challenging that boundary.
How do we convert fear into courage? Vulnerability into strength?
Setting our intentions for the event is a good start. Following a very helpful mentoring session, before the recent workshop, I decided to set the following intentions: 1) to connect authentically with the group – 2) to make the presentation as valuable as possible for them – and 3) to try and make it enjoyable for everyone, myself included, by keeping it dynamic and injecting some humour into it.
I also gave myself three permissions: 1) rather than fighting it, I allowed myself to feel nervous – 2) I gave myself permission to make mistakes (perfectionism can be our worst enemy) – and 3) I allowed myself to be seen – to be vulnerable – by sharing with the group the root of my own fear, which stems from childhood bullying.
How we use our body during a talk can have a massive impact on the quality of the delivery of our message, and its subsequent reception. Moving around and even gesticulating freely, as opposed to being stationary or rigid, allows our nervous energy to flow, preventing it from paralysing us.
Rather than avoiding eye contact, we can use it to help us connect and engage with the audience.
When speaking in public, fear can trigger various coping mechanisms; one of these is feigning confidence, which can result in apparent overconfidence and arrogance. This will alienate the listeners and in turn increase our sense of threat and isolation. Instead, we ought to embrace our vulnerability.
Giving a talk should not be seen as a finishing line, but as part of the wider learning process. Making mistakes is not just normal – it is necessary: there is no learning without failure. If we truly understand and accept this, we’ll be able to move on much more quickly from any mistake we happen to make.
And let’s remember that there’s no courage – only recklessness – without fear. Being brave and being scared – strong and vulnerable – are two sides of the same coin.
Nico is a life and mindfulness coach. You can contact him via his website.