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Why does public speaking make us nervous?

19 Jul 2019 By Sam Carrington

Our fears of giving a talk are mostly irrational and can normally be overcome through the application of psychology, says Sam Carrington

In life, it’s always interesting hearing about fears and phobias that don’t apply to you. Understanding what makes our fellow humans tick is a genuine curiosity and just goes to emphasise how differently we’re all wired.

I’m always fascinated – and as a speaking coach, slightly relieved – at how high public speaking comes in people’s lists of least favourite things. Surveys have seen it beating things like breaking up with a long-term partner or the death of a loved one as a ‘biggest fear’. It’s a stat that has always amazed me; does it mean that if your boss asked “Could you say a few words to welcome the guests to the summer party?” you’d be thinking “Could you kill my aunt instead?”

The psychology of stand-up comedy has intrigued me since I did my first gig seven years ago. How rooms are controlled and manipulated by the comic, and the effect the performance has on them, are things I find genuinely interesting.

Having read some books and attended a few talks on subjects like evolutionary psychology, I’ve developed the following theory; public speaking fears derive from the pack mentality we’ve had hardwired into our DNA for thousands of years. When modern humans first migrated from Africa, we set up tribes, which weren’t just social groups but were central to our existence. Fierce weather, animals that were above us in the food chain and more – the world was a very dangerous place if you weren’t with your mates.

This mentality still exists today. Think of how topics trend on social media, how the next season’s fashions are pored over and reported around the world so we all dress the same, or the tribal nature of football fans. Being part of the gang is central to us as a species. I noticed when my nephew was a baby at a noisy family lunch, when someone would say something funny he’d laugh heartily. My sister and brother-in-law hadn’t trained him to laugh at jokes he obviously didn’t understand, it was just in his DNA to do it. You can think of evolutional psychology as hardwired survival tips, some of which you don’t need in 2019.

Comics are good public speakers as we’ve all performed a whole set without any laughs and lived to tell the tale. It’s very rare that a comic, through some masochistic urge, tries to fail, but it’s an unavoidable hazard of the job. From personal experience, you obviously don’t feel great about it, but you wake up the next day and the sun comes up on time, you still have a partner and somewhere to live, etc. This changes your perspective on speaking and makes you a better speaker. Comedians have all walked to the edge of the abyss, stared the devil deep in the eye and lived to tell the tale.

One of the workshops we enjoy conducting is to split people into groups and ask them to come up with a story about their worst experience of public speaking (we’ve had some crackers – lots at weddings, I notice). This not only serves to help break the ice and get everyone talking, but there’s also a serious point behind it that comes from the simple question of 'how bad was it?' A misjudged wedding speech might raise a few eyebrows, but unless someone really goes to town, you’re talking about something else within seconds of it finishing. Even if it’s a misjudged work speech that leads to your dismissal from the company, the chances of you dying are pretty slim in most cases, I think. To understand a fear is the first step to conquering it.

Sam Carrington is the founder of Smirk Experience

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