When I was an English teacher, I asked students each quarter to deliver a final classroom presentation. The guidelines were simple: Stand in front of the room, with or without a visual aid, and talk to the class about a research paper they wrote for class. If you guessed what I asked my students to do based on their reactions alone, you may have surmised I wanted them to confess their love to a secret crush or climb Mount Everest. Teaching others to speak publicly was how I learned most people fear public speaking.
Ironically, I once counted myself as a member of that club. I would have stress dreams about being on stage — despite never even considering trying out for a school play. In my own college classes, when asked to speak in front of the class, I would panic: My hands would sweat, my voice would quaver, and all the blood would rush to my face. I was 24 years old before I cracked the code on being a confident public speaker by getting my first job in the restaurant industry.
By many metrics, 75 percent of the population has glossophobia, or a fear of public speaking. It wasn't until recently that I learned that there is a biological root to this fear. When we were evolving, if we ever found ourselves exposed in an open clearing and saw a pair of eyes peering at us, our bodies put us in fight-or-flight mode because we were most likely about to be eaten by a lion, tiger or other large predator. When we stand in front of a boardroom or classroom, with many pairs of eyes looking back at us, our brains sound the alarm and politely inform us that we are about to die.
I thought, though, if I gave my students an opportunity to practice public speaking, simple exposure would dissipate their fear. I based this on my own experience of working in the restaurant industry. Each week, I would talk to approximately 100 strangers about their food or beverage preferences. And also, because so many people are lonely, my role as a server often operated as a sounding board for people to share their day-to-day experiences.
However, I think my new capacity for speaking in public was less about repetitive exposure than the motivation behind my speaking. If the body goes into automatic "fight or flight" mode in response to public speaking, then the first line of defense to a successful speech is to moderate the body's adrenal response. That's where the vagus nerve comes into play. Deep breathing activates the body's response to calm "fight or flight." And, interestingly, so does acting from a place of kindness or generosity. "Can I get you another drink?" or "How was your food today?" were catchphrases that activated parts of my brain that told my body that we were not in danger. Listening to people who needed someone to care was also an act of generosity. I quickly realized there were no tigers in the room at all. And that I was in a position to help others.
Reframing the experience of public speaking as an opportunity to help others liquidates any stress associated with public speaking. If you identify yourself as one of the 75 percent of all humans who fear public speaking, I dare you to flip the script on the situation. The next time you have to toast the bride, present to a client or interview for a job, ask the tigers to leave the room by taking a few deep breaths and imagining how you will be of service to the people to whom you are speaking. ♦
Aileen Keown Vaux is an essayist and poet whose chapbook Consolation Prize was published by Scablands Books in 2018.