I'd like to talk to you about your fear of being eaten by lions, and how to overcome that fear.
Now maybe you’ve never really worried (much) about being eaten by lions as you go about your business amid the highrises of Tokyo, Shanghai, London, New York or whatever metropolis you work in, but the lion, and your fear of it, is out there. That fear is buried deep in your brain, and you probably experienced it the last time you gave a presentation.
Do People Fear Public Speaking More than Death?
“According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
- Jerry Seinfeld
Probably you've heard this in some form, maybe the Jerry Seinfeld monologue noted above... This is a public-speaking myth that is loved, is truly adored, by a lot of speaking coaches, because it highlights just how much people fear speaking in front of others, and so how much their services are needed.
This myth came about from a US publication called The Book of Lists, which in 1977 (!) published a list of Greatest Human Fears. What was #1? You guessed it, Speaking in Front of People. Death was actually #6, tied with Sickness yet behind Insects and Bugs at #3. If we follow the same logic, people fear bugs more than death. And that's it, that is the source of this myth, a 40 year old book with no actual research to back it up. But it, or some variation, has been repeated so much over the years that it’s almost been treated as fact.
This myth is so dangerous because every time it gets repeated, it makes people even more uncomfortable and anxious about public speaking and presenting.
Why We Fear Public Speaking
Nobody would deny that public speaking is a huge course of stress, anxiety, and fear. At its worst it can manifest itself as the condition called Glossophobia. But that's a world away from saying it's a bigger fear than death. Saying it’s a bigger fear than death actually makes no sense when you think about it, but we hear it get trotted out a lot at Toastmasters or by speaking coaches.
Yet there is a very real psychological basis for being uncomfortable with public speaking, it speaks to something very deep in our past as a species, it's linked to a very common human fear, the fear of ostracism, the fear of being outside of the group. Humans have an innate fear of ostracism, which is an outcome of our evolution and our need to belong to groups. In the old, old days, if we didn't fit in, or we didn't perform well, we might be kicked out of the tribe and then have to worry about getting eaten by a lion when we're shivering in the dark away from the campfire, hungry and alone. That primitive fear of ostracism and its consequences has the same physiological manifestations that many people fear when they have to stand up and give a presentation - dry mouth, sweat, shaking, eyes darting around looking for danger. Waiting for the lion to pounce.
If we don’t perform well in front of the group, the tribe, when we need to stand and speak in front of a group, that very old part of our brain is telling us that the audience may dislike us, may kick us out of the safety of the group, and so we’ll end up as dinner for lions. That's the part of our brain telling us to panic when we need to present in front of others.
How to Not Get Eaten by Lions
So what did our ancient ancestors do to make sure they'd never get kicked out of the tribe? They made sure they had skill. They got better at hunting, or making tools, or storytelling. They practiced and learned and got better.
Like anything else in life, we build our confidence by getting better at it, and the best way to get better at anything is simply to do it, as much as possible. Fear of public speaking is a fear about performance, and the best way to get better at anything is by training yourself and by doing it, by practicing it, over and over.
And even experienced speakers can feel that fear of not performing well. It’s usually a sign of under-preparation. Confident speakers, regardless of experience, are usually the ones who’ve prepared, the ones who’ve practiced, who know their material and who have rehearsed it well.
So study actively on getting better at presentation skills, and prepare properly whenever you do need to make a presentation. Then you can face your tribe much better. And of course, doing will always beat studying. So the best way to fight that fear is by facing it. You need to get out there and deliver as many presentations as possible.
Raise your hand whenever you have a chance to present!
Overcoming my Own Fear of Big Cats
That's what I did.
I began my career as a public speaker by giving presentations about a government R&D tax credit program, to audiences full of accountants and engineers. Can you imagine a more boring topic than taxes?
But I volunteered for that job, I raised my hand, because I knew I needed to get better at presenting and public-speaking, and so conquer my fear. And believe me, I used to be terrified of public speaking, but by doing it I got better little by little, I got better through doing it. It took me a few years to get better, but you can do it a lot faster, through study, through watching and learning from other speakers, and by presenting at every opportunity. Sure that fear never totally goes away, we're all still a little nervous when presenting in front of crowds, but with enough practice that fear becomes manageable, and we don't show it to others.
And when you do present, make sure you are prepared. Give yourself plenty of time to create the presentation, run it by your colleagues to get feedback, refine and revise it, and rehearse it so that you know every slide. Do that, and your performance fear will go down.
In fact, you may even find you enjoy it, you look forward to giving the presentations, at sharing your creativity with the world I certainly do! I went from someone who was incredibly nervous at public speaking and hated it, to someone who actively looks for chances to speak in public.
Why? Because it's fun, but also because it makes me better! It contributes to my career success and helps me to help others.
Because it’s necessary.
A Core Skill for the 21st Century
“Presentation literacy should be a core part of every school’s curriculum, on par with reading and math. It’s going to be an important life skill to have in the decades ahead.”
- Chris Anderson, Curator of TED
Getting better at presenting and public-speaking is not a nice-to-have, it is a must-have for success in business. We need to get better at sharing our ideas, to become leaders, to help ourselves and our businesses succeed, to create value for others, to change the world.
Yes, we'll still be a little nervous and uncomfortable speaking in front of people. But like any other skill, we get better through practice, through experience, and by preparing yourself before speaking. These are all techniques which can be learned.
That’s how to fight your fear of being eaten by lions.