“There are only two types of speakers in the world; the nervous and liars”

Mark Twain

Mark Twain wouldn’t recognise the world that we live in now, but research has shown that his quote hasn’t changed quite as much as we might imagine.

Does the thought of speaking in public fill you with dread?  If so, you’re not alone.  Studies show that 85% of people report feeling a state of high anxiety before and during public speaking and the other 15% would likely fall in to the category of a stirring anxiety/nervous anticipation, which the ego might feel a reluctance to admit hence Mr Twain’s description of the ‘liars’!

The Reward Mechanism

Glossophobia is the technical term for the fear of public speaking and can range from slight nervousness to a crippling fear, panic and brain freeze.   It’s reported that some people rate the fear of public speaking higher than the fear of death!   I’m not embarrassed to admit that I fall in to the 15% category for sure.  How many of us would admit to not hearing what the person sat next to us at a networking event are speaking about as our minds turn inwards, rushing through the pitch we’ve rehearsed, knowing that ‘we are next’?   Accepting the role of best man at a friend’s wedding is a huge honour but can create an equally huge level of anxiety.  Attending a job interview these days can mean giving a presentation in front of an interview panel and the thought of this for many can create a similar fear as if coming face to face with a wild animal.

Feeling confident when speaking in front of an audience takes practice and for us to achieve success and reach our full potential, we must face what might be holding us back so that we can embrace our opportunity to shine.   So, why are many of us held hostage to such a debilitating fear of public speaking and where does it come from?  

To understand this we need to go back to the days of the primitive man; the evolution of the human species where it really was survival of the fittest, existing between feast and famine, dodging the slings and arrows of wild tribesmen and looking fear in the face of the wildebeest, where fight or flight was quite literally down to luck more than judgement.   Chest pumping, pulse racing and a surge of the fight or flight hormones flooding the bloodstream fuelled the tribesman’s fear as he fought for his life in his efforts to survive and return to his tribe with food.

Hunting, gathering and supporting their tribe brought with it a status for the tribesman; a feeling of empowerment, resilience and reward that far exceeded a belly full of food as they successfully provided for themselves and their families.    Scientists have studied the relationship between the reward that was felt within the primitive community and how they managed to cope in such a threatening and hostile environment.  They established that the tribe would have felt safe and supported by each other, promoting a feeling of bravery, confidence and motivation and so enhancing their emotional wellbeing.  This positive behaviour allowed them to cope better with fear, threat and uncertainty.  What the tribe didn’t realise though was that the ‘reward’ they felt wasn’t just down to the prowess of their leader or the satiation of their appetite, it was down to a chemical release in their brain responsible for producing the neurotransmitter, serotonin and when a consistent flow of serotonin is generated it facilitates a natural ability to cope better, to feel calmer and more confident.   Thankfully we no longer have to hunt and gather like early man, but we do have to operate within the parameters of positive interaction and positive thought if we want to enjoy good mental health.

Finding the connection

Fast forward to the current day and we will be able to relate to the coping mechanisms of our primal ancestors.  We will appreciate that we are better as a ‘tribe’ than we are when we stand alone.   The primal instinct has been carried through evolution to this very day and, when we feel connected, i.e., being part of a network, whether that’s family, friends, colleagues or business/social groups, it provides us with a feeling of security, of wellbeing, motivation and confidence.  We feel supported and better able to cope with any the challenges that come our way. 

What has this got to do with a fear of public speaking?

Fear has been hardwired into us through evolution and our ancestral heritage.  Although, unlike primitive man, we don’t have to go out and hunt, forage and slay wild animals to feed our families, we are still faced with threats in the modern world, some of which are real and some perceived but nonetheless can evoke a similar stress response as that of the primitive man when faced with a predator.   Neuroscience has proven that every negative thought, feeling or experience we have is accumulated and stored in the emotional, limbic part of the brain and, as this accumulates, our stress, fear and anxiety levels increase which can make it very difficult to think with logic and reason.   Annoyingly, if we experience a feeling of dread, fear or worry on our very first experience of public speaking, the chances are that we will feel the same symptoms when we are in that situation again and, as we revisit this environment again and again, our mind pattern matches back to the original behavioural experience and, by default we establish an unwanted fear template. 

However, when we think with logic and reason we will know that speaking in front of an audience is not going to threaten our lives nor is it going to sabotage our future but even though we know this, it still doesn’t stop us from experiencing the same thumping heartbeat, racing pulse and stomach churning as that of the primitive man and, because our minds cannot tell the difference between imagination and reality, the emotional and physiological exchange taking place in our body and mind are alerting the safety mechanism in our brain (the Amygdala) to prepare for fight or flight, flooding our bloodstream with adrenaline and facilitating a quick escape .. but where’s the danger?

Turning the jitters in to jazz hands!

Feeling nervous before speaking in front of an audience is not a bad thing.   It’s a natural and healthy response and one that can make for a great presentation.   A small amount of nervousness provides just enough adrenaline to increase alertness and focus.   People that really enjoy public speaking are also feeding off adrenaline because anxiety and excitement are, physiologically, the same emotion.

Whether you are feeling anxious or excited your body responds in the same way – the fluttering of butterflies in your stomach, increased heart rate, dry mouth and an elevation in adrenaline.   The big difference as to whether you feel excitement or anxiety is all down to what you are thinking.  It’s up to your mind to interpret the body signals with a positive spin/ excitement, or a negative spin/ anxiety.  The physical line between anxiety and excitement is wafer thin.  We will all be familiar with the phrase ‘a rollercoaster of emotions’ and that is a great way to describe the fine veil of anxiety vs excitement.   Many of us will be able to recall nervously clambering on to a rollercoaster at the theme park and the rush of adrenalin that came with it, fuelling the surge of anxiety and excitement; but who could differentiate between the two whilst being flung around at a ridiculous speed?

I know I couldn’t!

There are many strategies you can use to channel anxiety into excitement and to build confidence, positivity and success when speaking in front of an audience.

To find out how to win at public speaking, check out my Strategies for Success article.

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