Why is public speaking scarier than death?

January 7, 2011 in Ignite, Speech by

Public speaking is such a common fear, but why? I suspect evolution holds the answer.

Wikipedia reckons that the “most common fears are of: ghosts, the existence of evil powers, cockroaches, spiders, snakes, heights, water, enclosed spaces, tunnels and bridges, needles, social rejection, failure, examinations and public speaking.

Even thinking about it can cause some people's heart rate to rise

Now doesn’t public speaking make a strange addendum to that list? Apart from the first two – which are imaginary – the rest seem like perfectly rational fears of things that could result in physical harm.

[You might claim the the fear of rejection is not a physical harm, rejection could be: Romantic rejection, which reduces your chances of procreation; and social rejection, which to a pack animal would be a very dangerous situation. Both may lead to the gene’s inability to continue to replicate itself, which is why we enjoy other people’s company]

So how does public speaking arouse so much fear? Most things we fear, like spiders and rejection, are things that sneak up on us and shit on our happiness. But public speaking is, for most people, totally avoidable. But we don’t. We do it, we just get scared of it and do it anyway.

I’m a performer, yet I too become petrified when I stand in front of an audience. Adrenaline causes my pupils to dilate, and the lights suddenly seem too bright. I can hear my heartbeat as blood pulses through my neck, causing my pulsing neck to thump at my collar. I begin to sweat. My mouth goes dry. I forget everything I was going to say and reach gingerly into my pocket to retrieve my notes. My hands are shaking, and as I hold that paper it quivers like an autumnal leaf in the breeze, creating a subtle rustling sound that seems deafening in the muted silence.

Petrified. And yet I do it all the time. Admittedly, after doing it for a bit, your body will normalize to the levels of stress hormone cortizol, and you’ll get less scared, bit by bit, but you’ll still be scared.

But I love it. I chase it. That thoroughly irrational adrenaline is an elixir to me.

Perhaps the fear is not irrational. Perhaps it is an important evolutionary trait.

Fear Centre: The Amygdala

Fear is experienced in the Amygdala

As we evolved, and there were elders who told us what to do, we developed the habit of obedience. They had to be wise – and a mark of wisdom is the ability to continue to be wise while under stress.

People who stutter and shriek and change their mind and ask for opinions and succumb to their fear are not the kind of people you would follow out of a flooding ravine. They panic and make bad decisions based on fear, or worse – they fail to decide at all.

What you want from a leader is someone who makes their choices calmly, speaks strongly and instructs you to do things clearly – even when under duress. Those are the tribes that survived.

So the link, in my mind, is this: By evolving to have a stifling fear of talking to groups, we eliminated the possibility of weak people becoming leaders, because public speaking is, by it’s nature, the primary element of leadership. Only those who can master their fear and speak calmly and clearly to a group will be heard. Being afraid of speaking means that people who suffer from their fears don’t rise to power.

And we all look at confident orators and think ‘Wow, what a guy!’ – regardless fo whether they’re plotting genocide or discussing art. There’s a part of our brain that compels us to listen to a calm and compelling speaker. That is why the only people who become really successful are good speakers, and that is a bloody good reason to master your fear and speak up.

That’s why it’s scary. Why is it scarier than death? I dunno. Because death is abstract and unknown, until you’re dead. Public speaking happens again and again until you give up or get it right.

Other Blogs: Take a deep breath

And: How to talk so people listen