Explaining Stage Fright

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain has an interesting discussion of stage fright, noting that “public speaking is the number-one fear in America, far more common than the fear of death.”

I’m terrified pretty much every time I speak in front of other people, so this makes perfect sense to me.

In fact, public speaking anxiety may be primal and quintessentially human, not limited to those of us born with a high-reactive nervous system. One theory, based on the writings of the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, holds that when our ancestors lived on the savannah, being watched intently meant only one thing: a wild animal was stalking us. And when we think we’re about to be eaten, do we stand tall and hold forth confidently? No. We run. In other words, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution urge us to get off the stage, where we can mistake the gaze of the spectators for the glint in a predator’s eye. Yet the audience expects not only that we’ll stay put, but that we’ll act relaxed and assured. This conflict between biology and protocol is one reason that speechmaking can be so fraught. It’s also why exhortations to imagine the audience in the nude don’t help nervous speakers; naked lions are just as dangerous as elegantly dressed ones (pp. 107-8).

An audience as a pack of predators — makes even more sense!

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4 responses to “Explaining Stage Fright

  • Tim Cole

    Take heart. Repeated experience will help develop confidence; after 30 years of proclaiming and teaching–3-4 times per week–fear is only a memory. So, take heart and keep going. The best is yet to come.

  • Betsy

    I love speaking in front of groups….yet I would consider myself an introvert…hmmmm. BTW…do you differentiate between teaching and public speaking?

    • timgombis

      It’s an odd thing . . . sometimes I can’t wait to chop it up with a group, kicking around a text and interpretations of it. At other times, even though I’m totally prepared, I fantasize about phoning in a bomb threat just to get out of talking in front of a group. Very odd . . .

  • John Duffy

    “An audience as a pack of predators.” Being a middle school teacher, this seems pretty familiar to me.

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