Public speaking is the third biggest fear in the UK, making it scarier than death in the public consciousness. How can we grapple back control and be more assured?
Training sessions, lectures, presentations, pitches… My work has involved a lot public speaking of late. And whether it’s five or 50 people listening, the terror of getting tongue-tied taunts me every time. It’s ridiculous – I’ve been doing it for over ten years and have done OK (well, managed not to run out of the room screaming at least). But experience almost makes it worse – I beat myself up that I should be effortlessly eloquent and confident by now. And I think the fact that I’m a writer makes it worse, too – I put a lot of pressure on myself that I should have a good command of language; the ability to articulate my thoughts and communicate in a way that resonates with everyone listening. But I don’t. It’s just really bloody hard.
Of course, most normal people feel the same. In fact three out of four people have ‘glossophobia’ – the fear of public speaking. I recently went to a great AIR lunchtime talk by Danielle Krage of The Diving Bell, and discovered that public speaking is actually the third biggest fear in the UK – after 1. heights and 2. snakes – which makes it scarier than death in the public consciousness. As Jerry Seinfeld pointed out, “to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than giving the eulogy.”
“To the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than giving the eulogy.”
Krage says that people can be really passionate and knowledgeable about a subject, but their anxiety around public speaking can mean we only see a ‘2D’ version what they have to say. Of course, having an in-depth knowledge of your subject really helps – feeling like you can anticipate the types of questions that are going to come up and have good answers to them makes a big difference. And practice, practice, practice.
But it’s also physiological. We’ve all felt the clammy hands, pounding chest, flushed cheeks and sweaty armpits when we’re scared, which are hard to shake off and can make us feel even less able to perform – a spiralling cycle of panic in the worst cases. Fear releases hormones that affect how we feel and behave.
Which brings me on to Amy Cuddy. In her brilliant TED talk ‘Your body language shapes who you are’ (watched by over 19 million people – so I’m just a little late to the party), she talks about how our body language can affect how we feel about ourselves – and how we can manipulate it to help us feel more powerful and in control.
In the animal kingdom, stretching out, taking up space, opening up bodies are all non-verbal expressions of power and dominance. With humans, people feeling powerful – for example, when they’ve just won a race – instinctively put their arms in the air and lift up their chins. Even people born blind, who never would have seen such gestures, do it. Conversely, both animals and humans wrap up when they’re low, depressed, embarrassed, intimidated or have no self-esteem.
Cuddy argues that we can “fake it ’til we make it” – behave in a way we don’t feel (i.e. powerful), until we actually start to feel it, and that our bodies can actually change our minds. So if we do a “high power pose” – stretch out, open up our bodies, act dominant – for two minutes, it leads to hormonal changes that will make us feel more assertive, confident and comfortable. She even suggests we should do it behind closed doors, in a toilet cubicle or in the lift, just before speaking to an audience and it will help us perform better. It might sound far-fetched, but watch her talk and you’ll find it hard not to believe. I gave it a go for the last public speaking session I did last week and I honestly felt noticeably more assured and in control. Boom.