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Overcoming Fear of Public Speaking

Glossophobia. It’s not, as the name suggests, a fear of varnishing wood – it’s a fear of public speaking.

Commentary surrounding the subject, however, can absolutely be a bit like varnish, in the sense that its platitudes and clichés tend to stick to the surface, creating a reassuringly pleasant exterior that doesn’t necessarily indicate depth or quality.

That doesn’t mean that anxieties about public speaking shouldn’t be talked about – of course, they should. Just don’t expect me to recommend picturing anybody naked (especially, if we’re being honest, anybody at an insurance event).

How, then, can we talk meaningfully about public speaking fears – and overcoming them – without falling into the trap of the truism?

I think it can be helpful to turn to science and start from a more concrete perspective – at least, as concrete as the world of fears and phobias can be.

In fact, turning to proper, peer-reviewed studies is a great way to justify this topic in the first place. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a fear of public speaking is actually the most common fear that we tend to report, with 73 per cent of people acknowledging public speaking as one of their biggest sources of anxiety.

Given this huge proportion of anxiety sufferers amounts to most of the population, no doubt we’ve all felt the dry mouth, increased blood pressure, sweating, and irregular breathing mentioned in a 2021 study published in the Journal of Further and Higher Education. But why does this happen at all?

For those who take a long-term (think evolutionary) view, a fear of public speaking is easy to explain.

According to a 2019 report in Harvard Business Review, fears of public speaking stem from a primordial response to interpreting watchful eyes as predators ready to pounce on unsuspecting prehistoric people.

Of course, it might not always be appropriate to explain away psychological difficulties by waving a hand toward genetic predispositions or ‘lizard-brain’ responses in the amygdala – but this approach does point towards a very promising solution.

The report suggests that the best way to go about “disarming our organic panic button” is to stop thinking about ourselves (“will I look stupid? What if I drop my notes?”) and, instead, redirect our energies and attention outward towards the audience.

From a biological perspective, the idea is that generosity eases our fight-or-flight response – so, by reframing public speaking as an opportunity to help our audiences, we override the instinct that tells us they’re sabre-toothed tigers planning a violent Q&A.

I’m not really qualified to comment on whether, or to what extent, we should factor caveman instincts into our self-care and self-improvement.

I will say this, though: at the start of this post, I mentioned my distaste for the clichéd idea that we should ‘picture the audience naked’ – but maybe it’s not just about the cliché. Maybe it’s because I don’t like the idea of treating people – often peers, colleagues, and friends – with mental disdain in order to get over my own anxieties.

From that perspective, reframing public speaking as an act of help and generosity feels like a much better place to start.

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