Why Public Speaking Makes Us Nervous

Why Public Speaking Makes Us Nervous
September 23, 2021 Sam Carrington
In Business

In life its always interesting hearing about fears and phobias that don’t apply to you. Understanding what makes our fellow humans tick is always a genuine curiousity, after all we’re all wired up differently aren’t we?


I’m always fascinated and (as a speaking coach) slightly relieved at how high public speaking comes in people lists of least favourite things. Surveys have it beating things like breaking up with a long-term partner and the death of a loved one as people’s biggest fears. This stat has always amazed me; like if someone’s boss says ‘Oh, I thought you could say a few words welcome the guests to the summer party next week’ and the person thinks ‘could you kill my aunt instead?’


The psychology of stand-up comedy has intrigued me since, well since I did my first gig eight years ago. How rooms are controlled and manipulated by the comic, and the effect the performance have on them I find genuinely interesting.


Having read some books and attended a few talks on subjects like evolutional psychology I’ve developed the following theory; public speaking fears derive from the pack mentality we’ve had hard wired into our DNA for thousands of years. As we left Africa 90,000 or so years ago we set up tribes, which weren’t just social groups, they were central to our existence. Fierce weather, animals that were above us in the food chain and more- the world was a very dangerous place if you weren’t with your mates.


This mentality still exists today; think of how topics trend on social media, how the next season’s fashions are poured over and reported around the world so we all dress the same, the tribal nature of football fans- I could go on. Being part of the gang is central to us as a species. I noticed when my nephew was a baby in his high-chair around a noisy family lunch, someone would say something funny he’d laugh heartily. My sister and brother in law hadn’t trained him with food to laugh at jokes he obviously didn’t understand- like you would a dog- it was just in his DNA to do it. You can think of evolutional psychology as hard wired survival tips, some of which you don’t need in 2019.


Comics are good public speakers as we’ve all performed a whole set without any laughs (there are only two types of comics; dyers and liars) and lived to tell the tale. It’s very rare that a comic, through some masochistic urge, tries to fail, but its an unavoidable hazard of the job sadly. From personal experience you obviously don’t feel great about it, but you wake up the next day and the sun comes up on time, you still have a partner, somewhere to live, mates etc. This changes your perspective on speaking and makes you a better speaker. Comedians have all walked to the edge of the abyss, stared the devil deep in the eye and lived to tell the tale.


One of the exercises we enjoy doing in a workshop at Smirk is to split them into groups of six and ask them to come up with a story of the worst piece of public speaking they’ve ever encountered (we’ve had some crackers, lots at weddings I notice.) This not only serves to help break the ice and get everyone talking, there’s a serious point behind it, that comes from the simple question of how bad was it? A misplaced wedding speech might raise a few eye brows, but unless someone really goes to town you’re talking about something else within seconds of it finishing the vast majority of the time. Even if it’s a misjudged work speech that leads to your dismissal from the company, the chances of you dying are pretty slim in most cases I think.


To understand a fear is the first step to conquering it.

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