Why are we all afraid of public speaking? I call that fear the “penalty of leadership” and it’s one probable factor that accounts for the scarcity of great leaders in the world. It takes courage to grasp the nettle, step out in front of any group and point the way forward.
I think this irrational fear, anxiety, dread - whatever you want to call it - began far back in our evolutionary history. When we first climbed out of the trees onto the savannas of Africa, what were we? Fresh meat, essentially - and that fear was not so irrational then. Compared to the rest of the animal kingdom we lacked the teeth, claws, strength, speed and thick hide necessary to survive in that world of saber-toothed tigers. It’s a wonder we lasted ten minutes.
In those prehistoric times we had only three things going for us. We had: 1) an opposable thumb; 2) the beginnings of a cerebral cortex (so we could learn from any mistakes we survived); and 3) an instinctive ability to communicate with each other. Number 3 is what saved us. It helped us band together in groups, teams – to protect each other’s hairy butt.
The law of the jungle states that there is safety in numbers – it’s still at work in the great herds of Africa today. The fatal corollary to that law means: “the individual who becomes separated from the group is vulnerable to attack by predators.” Our ancestors lived by that law for millions of years, and I think it became embedded in our deepest brains, even into the strands of our DNA. So, whenever someone separates themselves from a group to take the lead, to stand solitary and apart, they are reliving that ancient and dangerous situation. Standing alone in front of an audience we all feel vulnerable.
That’s why it takes courage to lead, and skill as well, to overcome the defensive, compulsive behaviors common among public speakers. We feel compelled to sweep the eyes from side to side, scanning the room as if looking for a hidden predator. We feel like running, so it becomes difficult to keep the feet quiet, to anchor the stance and hold one’s ground. We want to hide, so the hands come up in front of the belly to guard the vital organs within. Our metabolism speeds up with a racing heart rate; our breath becomes short and shallow, the voice pinched and faint.
None of these feelings or compulsive behaviors are useful to us as leaders. We must overcome them somehow if we are to persuade the crowd that we are confident, sure of our selves, and capable of leading them properly.
So leadership requires skill as well as courage. The courage each of us must find on our own – though the experience of many trials, many speeches will definitely reduce the level of dread. The various skills of leadership we will address in future posts here on The Passionate Speaker.