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Why are You so Scared of Public Speaking?

Jim Ewan asked:

Of course, it’s not just you. Virtually everyone is petrified at the very thought of speaking in front of a group of their fellow human beings. Which means that this fear is natural. The human race is terrified of its own kind.

Why should this be? The answer to that question lies in prehistory; as do the answers to some other questions regarding our reactions to people. So let us go back – back to the time of the cavemen. There we will meet Ug – a mighty hunter.

Ug and his fellows died out millennia ago of course, but we all have a little bit of him in us to this day. In our genes. We are the sons and daughters of Ug and we show this in our instinctive reactions at the most basic level. So let’s relive one day a long time ago.

A good day for hunting It was a lovely, sunny day. Perfect for hunting. And that was just what Ug had in mind. He was setting off on a hunting expedition. He took up his favorite spear and set off towards the forest where he knew he should find a fat deer or other small game.

He hadn’t gone far when, suddenly, up ahead, he saw a group of cavemen. They were not from his extended family and thus, in those violent days, they represented a potential danger.

Immediately he spotted them, a pair of small endocrine glands, situated just above Ug’s kidneys, began to secrete a powerful hormone – adrenaline. As the drug sped through his bloodstream, Ug’s pulse rate quickened, his face flushed, his mouth became dry and he began to shake. Danger threatened and Ug was nervous! His body was preparing itself to fight, or to flee.

Had they seen him? Should he run, or would he be better trying to blend into the scenery until they had passed on? He dropped to the ground behind a small bush and pressed his face into the earth, hoping the strangers would not hear the pounding of his heart or the rasping of his breath.

Lucky escape Luck was with Ug that day and the group passed by without noticing him. After waiting a while to be sure they had gone, Ug set off again and soon reached the forest. He crept through the trees, all his senses alert. He could move through the forest almost silently; his sense of smell was magnitudes more sensitive than modern man’s and his reactions were those of a first-class athlete. Indeed, he was a first-class athlete.

Eventually he came to a clearing. Standing on the other side of the clearing stood a fine, fat deer. Just what Ug had been hoping for.

Immediately he spotted the deer, a pair of small endocrine glands, situated just above Ug’s kidneys, began to secrete a powerful hormone – adrenaline. As the drug sped through his bloodstream, Ug’s pulse rate quickened, his face flushed, his mouth became dry and he began to shake. The hunt was on and Ug was excited! His spear arm snapped back and he hurled the weapon across the clearing with lightning speed. His aim was true; straight to the heart of the deer sped his missile. The animal dropped dead instantly. Ug draped it across his shoulders and took his kill home.

Fortunately he did not meet any more strangers on the way and, that evening, the whole family had a wonderful feast. Ug, the great hunter, was, naturally, the guest of honor and was expected to make an after dinner speech.

Immediately he stood up to speak, a pair of small endocrine glands, situated just above Ug’s kidneys, began to secrete a powerful hormone – adrenaline. As the drug sped through his bloodstream, Ug’s pulse rate quickened, his face flushed, his mouth became dry and he began to shake. Ug felt exactly the way you and I do under similar circumstances! Was he frightened? Or excited?

The point to notice here is that Ug’s physiological reactions to threat (fear) and thrill (excitement) were exactly the same. And so are yours and mine and every other human being’s.

Enter the love interest! Incidentally, after making a successful speech (consisting largely of grunts) Ug went for a walk in the gathering dusk. During the course of his walk, he happened upon a cavelady. To us she would have looked pretty much like Ug – but to him she was very attractive.

Immediately he spotted her, a pair of small endocrine glands, situated just above Ug’s kidneys, began to secrete a powerful hormone – adrenaline. As the drug sped through his bloodstream, Ug’s pulse rate quickened, his face flushed, his mouth became dry and he began to shake.

That’s right – exactly the same physiological symptoms.

What does it mean? So far, so what? Two things:

One, we have no control over how we react physiologically. Standing in front of a group spells danger, as it always has. In dangerous situations, human beings get sweaty and shaky. Hunting is exciting. In exciting situations, human beings get sweaty and shaky. Some members of the opposite sex are very attractive. When we find people very attractive, we are prone to become sweaty and shaky. The same response but to different stimuli.

Two, in a speaking situation, no one knows, unless you tell them, whether you are scared of them or excited at the prospect of talking to them! In fact, you don’t know either – until you begin analyzing the situation intellectually. I recommend therefore, that you adopt this strategy:

Tell yourself that you are excited!

Then tell your audience how excited you are to be speaking to them! That way, if they notice your hand shake as you reach for the water jug, or spot a flush to your cheek as you begin to speak, they’re flattered! “Gosh, (s)he really is excited, (s)he’s not just saying it!”

And guess what? If you tell yourself and your audience how excited you are often enough, you may even come to believe it yourself.

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