It was the spring of 1999, the trees outside of the classroom had just started to bloom, and my brother and I were sitting next to each other in COM 1010 Oral Communication or Public Speaking Class at Wayne State University. It was the last week of the semester and we were all scheduled to give our final speech in front of 20 or more classmates.
As my brother and I sat in our desks a classmate of ours walked towards the front of the room and began speaking about his fraternity. No more than 30 seconds into the speech and things started to take a turn for the worse. The kids face started to turn red, his forehead began to perspire, and he began to lean backwards ever so slightly. Before anyone could react the kid had hit the point of no return. He lost control of his body and fell backwards as if someone hit him with a bat.
As we rushed to front of the room to help him he jumped up as if nothing had happened and dashed out the room.
I did manage to run into the kid at the gym about a week later and asked him if everything was alright and what had happened to him that day. He started to tell me how he couldn’t remember even getting up in front of the classroom and speaking. He continued to tell me how he was deathly afraid of speaking in front of people and that he’s always had a fear of public speaking.Being a somewhat naïve 18 year old I had never heard of the fear of public speaking and took what I was being told as an excuse for not finishing his speech.
Now as time has passed and I’ve broadened my horizons; I’ve come to discover that the fear of public speaking is real. I’ve never experienced it myself as my fellow classmate did. But I do have the occasional jitters before a big presentation or speech, but I’ve come to know a lot of people over the years that are deathly afraid of speaking in public.
The vast majority of people that have a fear of public speaking tend to blame it on bad past experiences, a fear of being ridiculed by the audience, or not knowing everything about the subject they are going to be speaking about. This all seems quite silly considering that none of those reasons are based on the person’s ability to speak.
But why do people have a fear of public speaking?
The fear of public speaking or Glossophobia is considered to be a social anxiety disorder where individuals suffer from performance issues when they speak in front of a group of people. In the case of my fellow classmate he couldn’t finish his speech because the fear took control of his body.
Knowing that Glossophobia is a form of social anxiety you can better understand why you have developed a fear of public speaking.
Social anxiety is the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, and embarrassment. Those feelings can and will affect your performance when speaking in front of a group of people. And when you can’t perform you start building doubt not only in yourself, but in your audience’s vision of who you are. This doubt can lead to some evolutionary triggers in our brains.
To our ancestors being part of a group was critical to their survival. As hunter gathers there was always strength in numbers. Our ancestors hunted in groups, they gathered food in groups and they raised their families in groups. Their main source of protection was being part of a group.
Our ancestors might have been banished by a group for a variety of reasons, not doing their fair share of work, doing something which was disapproved of, or challenging the leader(s). If they were separated from a group it meant death was on the horizon. So being an accepted member of the group was critical to survival of us as human beings.
But what do our ancestors and being part of a group, have to with your fear of public speaking?
Although our surroundings and lifestyles have changed in the last hundreds of thousands years, we as humans still have the same universal desires as our ancestors. Those desires are to be accepted and approved of by others.
When it comes to public speaking you may be seeking the acceptance and approval of the group you are speaking to or with. This is where your primal brain can take over. Your brain can send you a signal that if you don’t get the approval of the group you’re speaking to, you could be banished. And banishment to our primal brain is a sign of danger.
If your brain has any inclination that you’re in danger, your adrenaline will begin flowing, which triggers your heart to race, your face to turn red, and your body to sweat. This is a great reaction to have when our ancestors were evolving and in times of real danger today. However this reaction by your brain, isn’t so useful, when you are speaking to a group of people and want to convey an image of credibility and professionalism.
As I look back to that spring day in 1999 and picture the kid who passed out in my college public speaking class, a couple things come to mind:
- He could hold a great conversation one on one and never displayed any speaking problems when I talked to him before or after the incident.
- During his speech he displayed the classic primal response to danger, his face turned red, he began to sweat and then he passed out.
- Upon waking up he darted out the door, without any memory of what happened.
- At first fellow classmates were shocked but then they laughed at him when he darted out the door.
- The laughter of his classmates, the group, not only assured the disapproval of the speech but only reinforced the kid’s fear of public speaking.
How many times have you or someone you know fell victim to their fear of public speaking? I’d love to hear your comments below.