A man on a small stage delivering a talk to an audience with confidence

Fear of Public Speaking? How we Evolved to be Afraid

If you were to read many of the thousands of blogs and articles that tackle this ubiquitous problem, you’re going to read much of the same insights into an issue (that is Glossophobia) that affects a reported 75% of people around the world. You’ll find authors discussing many of the challenges of public speaking – pre-performance nerves, nausea, lack of projection, talking too fast, lack of audience engagement, lack of confidence and poor body language. All well and good for the average reader – however the problem here  is that all too often, these same authors are simply highlighting the symptoms of the problem and not the source itself. Telling someone to ‘be more confident’ or ‘be more engaging’ is as useful to most people as a chocolate teapot when it comes to standing up in front of a group of people and delivering. PRACTICE MORE! Is a staple piece of advice that most experts dish out by the ladle full. However, by simply relying on a ‘practice makes perfect’ model we ignore the roots of all the REAL issues that affect most people – and nine times out of ten practicing for performance is simply not enough.

When we don’t understand the root causes of a problem – it’s impossible to identify the remedy.  In this article we’re going to look at some the REAL causes that make up the fear of public speaking – and what are the steps we can take to overcome our fear and deliver an impactful performance when we need it the most.

#1 Practice Makes Perfect is a Myth!

We see many public speaking coaches rely on this old adage and; whilst allowing sufficient time to thoroughly prepare is definitely great advice, giving you added confidence and a solid structure, it’s not a golden ticket to delivering a powerful performance. Like in most things in life, solid preparation is they first step to success – however it’s only one step in the journey. Over the years we’ve worked both with clients who thoroughly prepare, yet still deliver underwhelming presentations – and clients who underprepare but relish performing under the spotlight. So – yes absolutely make sure you prepare – have a strong sense of who your audience is and how you want them to feel (or what you want them to do!) having listened to your presentation. But don’t rest on your over-prepared laurels. There’s still much work to do.

# 2 The Fear of Being Seen

Sue Mythen, Head of Movement at The Lir Academy, Trinity College Dublin explains that ‘most people don’t mind being watched, but we’re terrified of being seen’. This single sentence lies at the heart of much of the public speaking anxiety we find in our clients. You’ve probably heard of Imposter Syndrome – that feeling where we doubt our accomplishments and fear being discovered as a fraud. It’s something that is felt on some level or another, by EVERYONE, from recent graduates to CEO’s. And what better place to feel a rushing onset of Imposter Syndrome, than standing up under the spotlight in front of your peers and allowing yourself to be judged. Right? Much of the work that we do with our Bachelor in Acting students at The Lir Academy focuses on how we can overcome this fear of being seen. We’ll talk more about that a bit later.

# 3 Understanding the Fight, Flight or Freeze response

If you’re someone who, despite all the preparation in the world, crumbles at the thought of public speaking, who stumbles through their delivery, speaks at a million words a minute, fidgets and paces relentlessly and avoids contact with their audience – guess what? It’s not your fault. If you’re looking for something to blame – blame evolution. As Sarah Gershman of The Harvard Business Review writes:

We need to go way back to prehistoric times, when humans perceived eyes watching us as an existential threat. Those eyes were likely predators. People were literally terrified of being eaten alive. In response to that prehistoric reality, the amygdala, the part of our brain that helps us respond to danger, kicked into full gear. And when our fight-or-flight response gets triggered, we understandably feel intense stress and anxiety”. 

What many public speaking coaches fail to address is the fact that no amount of preparation, visualisation or willingness to succeed can overpower the might of natural instincts that have existed since the dawn of time. Instincts that have been genetically passed down to us to help us deal with external threats and survive. Standing up in front of an audience goes against every natural survival instinct we have – and in order to deliver a performance under pressure, the first thing we need to understand is how we can control our central nervous systems automatic response to an external threat. That’s where training like an actor can help.

# 4 Recognising the symptoms

The Vagus Nerve plays a central role in determining how we perform under pressure. Without getting too ‘sciencey’ on you – this is the part of the Central Nervous System that is responsible for many symptoms of the Fight, Flight or Freeze response.

Our clients regularly talk about the symptoms they feel when faced with the prospect of public speaking:

  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Tension
  • Increased heartrate
  • Difficulty Breathing
  • Dry Mouth
  • Shaky Voice

If you’ve ever felt any of these symptoms ahead of public speaking, guess what? Good news, your central nervous system is doing its job! The even better news is that there are very simple exercises and techniques involving the Body, Breath and Voice which you can employ that will help extinguish these symptoms and set you on the right path to delivering a powerful performance under pressure. And that readers, is where training like an actor comes into play.

# 5 Training like an Actor

Picture you favourite actor on a large, empty stage. The auditorium is packed as the lights go down – as the spotlight focuses on our star it’s clear that all eyes are on them. They stand perfectly still, hands down by their side, looking out confidently into the audience – and then they speak. An opening line delivered with clarity, confidence, conviction and authority. Whatever they say we’re going to believe. And never for a moment do we doubt the sincereness in their performance. We’re hooked.

Did you ever wonder how a person can stand up and deliver this effortless perfection? Well allow us to let you into a little secret. The key to their incredible performance is simply this – TRAINING. Most actors you see on stage are not just a generational talent, an enigma who was born for the stage. The reality is they have undergone significant levels of training before they ever step foot on a professional stage – and central to that training is learning how to master their body, breath and voice.

When actors train for their Bachelors in Acting degree with The Lir Academy, much of the 3 years is spent on the physicality of the craft. This doesn’t involve hitting the gym – but more so understanding how we can use our Body, Breath and Voice to maximum effect. Professional actors can deliver these performances because they have trained themselves to overcome the fight, flight or freeze response by employing simple techniques and breathing exercises which help minimise nerves and maximise the impact of their verbal and non-verbal delivery.

The Lir Academy

The Lir Academy set up ‘The Lir at Workin 2016 to help people in business become brilliant communicators, using these same actor training techniques to help people deliver impactful performances when they need it most. Clients who have attended our public speaking classes are given a toolkit of techniques that allow them to release tension, enhance a relaxed state, maintain control and use their voice and body language to connect with their audience with greater impact than ever before.

Cathal Quinn, Head of Voice at The Lir Academy and a senior public speaking trainer with the ‘Lir at Work’ programme says “We empower people to take back control when speaking under pressure which can lead to a dramatic improvement in our clients’ public speaking skills. Knowing that we can employ breathing techniques to reverse any negative natural responses can be a very powerful tool – and by focusing on creating a solid foundation of basic skills; we remove a lot of the hurdles that prevent people from delivering a performance that matches their ability. It’s not good enough for public speaking coaches to say “Speak more slowly”, “Don’t fidget”, “Connect with you audience”, “Don’t Waffle”. These are only symptoms of a problem – not the problem itself”.

So the next time your ‘palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy there’s vomit on your sweater already, mom’s spaghetti’ – just remember that its thousands of years’ worth of evolution working as it should. Just breathe deep and consider that training like an actor might just help you deliver the performance that matches your potential.

At the Lir At Work we deliver public speaking courses for both individuals and groups. These incorporate a range of theoretical, practical, learning modules designed to strengthen confidence for anyone who fears or is uncomfortable with speaking in public.

Whether you are faced with making presentations to large audiences, leading teams, or controlling communications at boardroom level, our public speaking courses will equip you with the necessary skills and confidence to deliver a powerful performance in the workplace.

For more information on the learning outcomes please visit our public speaking workshop series or contact us directly liratwork@thelir.ie