Glossophobia. The fear of speaking in public.
Also called “speech anxiety,” this is the most common phobia in North America. Three out of four people suffer from it — and we suspect there’s something wrong with that fourth guy. I mean, honestly, what kind of person isn’t afraid to stand up and deliver a speech? to lay bare his intelligence or lack of it? to stand there while people stare and listen and judge? to risk ridicule and exclusion from the all-important social ties that bind us???
It’s a tough fear to figure. Heights? Sure, that fear makes sense – you walk too close to the edge of a cliff, you fall off, you die. After hundreds of generations of natural selection, all the people with no fear of heights went over the edge and took their fearless genes with them, leaving us scaredy-cats alive and thriving.
But speech phobia? Why did we inherit that?
I’m guessing it was because most of the fearless blabbermouths in days of old stood up and said something stupid (or maybe just subversive) and got themselves killed for it. Or exiled, which amounted to the same thing. Or shunned or made a laughing stock, which aren’t good for finding mates and passing on your fearless genes. That left a lot of quiet scaredy-cats, plus a few folk who weren’t afraid to speak up but happened to have either (1) something worth listening to or (2) a bunch of friends who had their backs.
Scary Public Speaking Fact #1: William Henry Harrison, a former US President, delivered a long inaugural speech in the cold without a hat, caught pneumonia, and died. (This is as scary as it gets – public speaking will not rip you to pieces.)
It’s perfectly normal to get nervous before speaking in public. But if you rearrange your life to avoid it, you have a phobia. Here are some signs:
- You’d rather fail a subject than do an oral report;
- You decline to go to your own award ceremony because you’re afraid to stand up and say thank you;
- You’re kept awake at night dreading next week’s public speaking competition;
- Visions of yourself vomiting, collapsing or piddling your pants at a podium flash through your mind.
Once again, the cure is exposure therapy. Start slowly. Say “here” instead of just raising your hand during attendance. Walk in front of the class to get to your seat instead of sneaking behind all the desks. When that feels okay, try to say one thing out loud in class every day, then speak more and more until you’re okay with it. Finally, take the stage. Slowly. Read a story to first-graders before tackling older audiences. Recite your speech in front of one kind person before trying a group. Visualize yourself doing a good job. Take a few deep breaths and find an encouraging audience member. And when you’re done, give yourself a hand.
Scary Public Speaking Fact #2: Speech anxiety may increase your odds of having a heart attack during a speech. So chillax.
Most of us have good reason to relax: no one’s paying much attention. But some of us are up against the devil. If you’re in a class with a mean horrible kid (or teacher) who will never in a million years let your speech be a good experience, or if you live in a family where a parent or sibling always mocks or stomps on everything you say, or if your circle of friends includes some snotty kid who always makes you feel stupid, you need to find a different public to speak in front of – a library, an aunt’s house, a club, one friend. Every bad experience will entrench your fear, so find somebody who wants to hear what you have to say – even if it’s your dog (see Fearless February Day 1).
Scary Public Speaking Fact #3: In this day of iPods and smart phones, there’s a fair chance that someone will record your speech and publish it online.
I came across a recording of myself posted online, reading a scene from 26 Tips for Surviving Grade 6 at my book launch a couple of years ago. It was a shock to discover – terror immediately set in – but it wasn’t half bad. I didn’t appear nervous at all. You could be lucky like that, and appear calm while inwardly in a tizzy. (Or you could be like a guy named Steve from my university days who turned beet red and stammered through his presentations. It was painful to watch — but he was really cute so it was kind of endearing. Even if people always remember how nervous you were during your speech, they may remember it fondly. You never know.)
Scary Public Speaking Fact #4: A few leaders (of countries and protest movements) have been assassinated during speeches. But thousands of people have stood by quietly while millions of others were murdered – and that’s much scarier.
In 28 Tricks for a Fearless Grade 6, Andrew is so terrified of public speaking that he lies, cheats and fakes sick to avoid it. But you can’t get through school without speaking. So Dave Davidson and his friends use their fear-slaying techniques – plus cue cards, affirmations, and distractions – to get Andrew through his three-minute speech (not quite fearlessly but at least without falling to pieces).
You can do it, too.