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Why are we afraid to speak in public?

Why are we afraid to speak in public?

Almost everyone has already experienced that discomfort of being on stage or in front of a group of people who are there to hear us, right? The dry throat, the heart speeds up, the hands get sweaty, the leaves are straightened time and time again, our eyes flee from the eyes of others. Anyway, why are we afraid to speak in public?

The amygdala, a brain structure associated with emotions, is the main culprit, as it is responsible for regulating defense responses. According to this text from the Harvard Business Review, it is necessary to go back to prehistory to understand the phenomenon. At the time, the looks that were aimed at humans were seen as a threat. They were predators that prowled and threatened human existence. Those people, who were almost like us, were afraid of being eaten. And that’s where the amygdala comes into play. The decision that results from the threat (flee or fight) is also associated with stress and anxiety. The brain has devised a way to transfer this fear of being watched to public speaking. In other words, as that North American publication says, anxiety when speaking in public is in our DNA, it is part of us. It is like an attack, a threat to our survival. Therefore, sometimes and depending on the person, the response to the threat translates into physical signs: shortness of breath, pink skin and tremors.


And then, as the brain sets all alarms for the danger we are exposed to, we set up defense strategies. There it is, as we saw before, not looking into the eyes of those who are watching that presentation, or getting lost in slides, totally ignoring that we speak to someone. This creates a barrier between the speaker and the audience, which harms the message.

Loving the amygdala, like a good friend who tells another that everything is fine, calming everything down, may involve not focusing on us, but on the audience. As the Harvard Business Review writes, it is time to apply human generosity. We are there to help the public, right? And, if that were not positive in itself, it is a strategy to turn off the brain’s alarms: being generous and friendly to those who listen to us soothes these defense mechanisms, several studies show.

But there are more solutions. According to the book “Iconoclast”, by neuroscientist Gregory Berns, there is a way to inhibit the amygdala: “There is more and more neurobiological evidence that when people re-evaluate emotional circumstances, the prefrontal cortex goes online and inhibits the amygdala”. In short: the amygdala, the part of our brain that tells us that we have to fight or flee, is more easily tamed when we restructure our internal thoughts and turn what is negative into positive, explains this article from “Forbes”.

That American publication then quotes an article by researchers at Columbia University that revealed that it is possible to “change the way we feel by changing the way we think”, which leads to lessening the consequences and emotional damage of an experience that would have everything to be distressing. In addition to trying to breathe positivism, there are other ways. In football in the past, for example, there was talk of “invisible training”, which involved assessing behaviors and decisions, imagining scenarios and solutions and still leading a healthy lifestyle. Whoever answers questions can also imagine what the other person will ask. Being prepared, reducing unpredictability, allows lowering anxiety levels.

Psychology professor at the Human Performance Lab at the University of Chicago, Sian Beilock, has already demonstrated some pranks that the mind plays. In the Ted Talk above, this former goalkeeper says that she trembled and failed when, despite being at her best, she learned that the coach was there. She knew she was being evaluated and so she became more and more worried, concentrated, thinking about what she was doing, almost in slow motion, calculating the consequences of everything and any mistakes. And he recalled that many times, whether playing football or speaking in public or even at a job interview, when we prepare for that activity we never do it in the real environment. Therefore, again, the alarms of danger and threat to our survival are triggered, as we are not used to what we are experiencing or about to experience. In his book, “Choke”, he explained that we put too much pressure on ourselves and demonstrated that a presentation can be totally destroyed “when concerns and doubts invade the brain”. More: “Anticipating an event, and specifically anticipating others to judge us, is enough to put pressure on even before you reach the stage”.


Now that we know a little better why we feel threatened when we are going to speak in public, and now that we also know that there is a way to get around or work on this survival instinct, we now list the Inc’s list of 20 tips for mastering the art of speaking in public:

– know the audience;

– rehearse, rehearse, rehearse;

– practice with distractions;

– find a style;

– know the environment (and the stage);

– test equipment;

– practice in front of a mirror;

– use every opportunity to speak (it may be a group of friends);

– practice body language and movements;

– slow down (accelerated presentations convey insecurity);

– make eye contact;

– know well what we are talking about;

– taking long breaks;

– practice tone and voice projection;

– resort to humor and emotions;

– mental preparation;

– do sports before a performance (to release stress and anxiety);

– show confidence;

– do not exceed the expected time;

– ask for feedback.