Stammering, sweating, red-faced – that was me as a school student when I had to stand up in front of the class and give a presentation. It was my worst nightmare, akin to the one where I turned up to school still in my pyjamas. As an adult I avoided giving speeches or presentations where at all possible, but sometimes those fears you’ve managed to duck all your life catch up with you and you’re forced to face them.
This was the case with me after I published my first two novels. I realised that if I wanted people to buy them, putting myself out there to promote my books was inevitable, and part of that included speaking in public. In a previous blog post I talked about doing my first author talk at my local library, and how elated I was that not only had I confronted my fear, but the talk went smoothly and I received many compliments on its success. I was so pumped afterwards, I could have scaled a mountain!
A couple of days ago I did my third author talk at another local library. Even though it went smoothly, I still felt as nervous as I did before the first one. A cloud of dread loomed over me for days beforehand, and on the morning of the talk I was deep breathing to quell my nerves right up until I took the microphone.
There is some consolation in knowing I’m not alone – it’s a well known fact that public speaking is a major fear for many people and depending on which survey you read, even transcends the fear of death. Comedian and actor Jerry Seinfeld said, ‘According to most studies, peoples’ number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means, to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.’
When you think about it rationally, of course you’d rather be the one doing the eulogy – but when have fears ever been rational? I find it intriguing – what is it about talking in front of a group of people that is so terrifying?
Social researchers say it’s our fear of disapproval, judgment or criticism – that we’ll make a fool of ourselves and cause people to reject us. Some say this goes back to our primal roots – in our ancestors’ days, being rejected by your tribe left you alone and vulnerable to attack by enemies.
In a blog post on O’Reilly Media, there’s an excerpt from Scott Berkun’s book Confessions of a Public Speaker, in which he maintains there are four reasons why public speaking rings alarm bells in our brains:
Thousands of years ago, being in that situation meant that you would probably soon be attacked and eaten alive. But even though the possibility of that happening when making a speech is remote (unless it’s really abysmal) the wiring of our brains is so primal that we’re not able to shake the fear.
So if, as Berkun implies, the fear of public speaking is hard-wired into our brains, it’s the norm to be afraid and it’s those people who claim not to be afraid who are the minority. Or, as writer Mark Twain, who actually made most of his income from speaking, put it, ‘There are two types of speakers – those that are nervous and those that are liars.’
In fact, I’ve discovered there are many famous people who’ve admitted to fears of public speaking, from Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher to Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant and Warren Buffett. As a college student Warren Buffet was so terrified of public speaking that he enrolled in a public speaking course and didn’t turn up to the first class because he was too nervous! Needless to say, he did go on to conquer his fear and became an accomplished public speaker.
So now, after my research, I’ve come to the conclusion that my fear of public speaking is completely normal. But this still won’t stop the butterflies swarming around in my stomach before my next presentation. But as one wit put it – ‘It’s okay to have butterflies in your stomach, just make sure they fly in formation.’
Have you had to overcome fears of public speaking? I’d love to hear your comments – and advice!
Robin Storey is an Australian author from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. She is a certified book nerd and has no weird hobbies or unusual pets.