By Katie Marshall
In almost every discussion or presentation that I lead, I make it a point to express how scary public speaking is.
It’s one of those things that we’re not supposed to do, like when celebrities share their extensive beauty secrets or professional athletes express just how difficult training can actually be. When you are the performer or presenter, you are supposed to make it look easy and then accept the accolades of being considered fearless or flawless.
But when many of us are afraid of public speaking (in 2014, Americans voted it the #5 biggest fear), it is important that the person with the microphone acknowledges it. Anxiety is something that can be managed, starting with finding the root cause, and by asking why.
Why is public speaking so scary? Why are we afraid of it?
The reason is likely to do with feeling as though our identities or social standings are threatened… and when they are threatened, so is our survival. Yet what’s so interesting is that how we communicate is largely how we understand ourselves, especially within the context of a social group. Is our issue with self-understanding and acceptance more inherently rooted than we ever thought? And is it simply the fear of communicating?
Think about a time when you had to give a presentation in school or at work. Think about a time when someone said something you disagreed with at a dinner party. Think about walking into a networking event and not seeing anyone you recognize, and realizing that to talk with anyone at all, you would have to introduce yourself to new people.
How did you react? Did you take a deep breath and walk forward, feeling sort of like King Leonidas in the last battle scene of the movie 300? Or did you duck into the bathroom to put cool water on your face because you were burning up? Did your hands shake a little? Are your palms sweaty now even at the thought of being the only one speaking in a room where everyone is watching you?
You are not alone. Even the most well-trained speakers experience some kind of communication apprehension, or anxiety at knowing they will be speaking in front of people in the near future.
I recently visited the University of North Carolina Greensboro Speaking Center, where I met with Taylor, a highly talented Graduate Assistant and friend of mine from way back, to review an upcoming presentation of mine and to learn as much as I could from her. Taylor is a wealth of knowledge and has this amazing way of explaining big concepts in beautiful, easy-to-digest ways.
Besides making my presentation roughly 100% better with her feedback and insight, Taylor told me something that rocked my world: I was explaining that even though I’ve given a lot of presentations and speeches, I still get at least a little nervous. In response, she said: “It’s totally natural. After all, communication and fear are both primal instincts.”
Wait – what?
So that means that fear and communication are so tightly woven together in our genetic make-up, that even though we know that most likely nothing truly terrible will happen when we walk up to a podium to speak, we still get anxious as though it will.
Before we even made the wheel or the hunting weapon we knew how to communicate, non-verbally at first, then eventually with noises that we made that we turned into words. Before we knew how to build security systems or designate leaders, we got by with “Fight or Flight” instincts, a theory first described by Walter Bradford Cannon, which explains the physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. Communication and fear are two of our oldest, most ingrained instincts. They are the foundation of our survival techniques. Before we knew what we do now, we knew the fear of the unknown, the instinct to face it or run, and how to express ourselves to others.
Isn’t that incredible?
Now, what do we do with it?
The important thing to know is this: it is natural, literally biological, to be afraid to speak up. It’s okay to be nervous. It’s okay to have a shaky voice or have to clear your throat or even give yourself a pep-talk in the bathroom mirror before you get up to present. Anxiety, just like conflict, cannot be completely erased, but it can be managed. As Ambrose Redmoon says: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than one’s fear.”
Accept your anxiety. Decide that what you have to say is more important than your fear of it. Take a deep breath. And speak.