Some People Fear Public Speaking More Than Death Itself

Brilliance | Dec. 11, 2017

Whether it's a presentation at work, a speech for your brother's wedding, or the opening night of a big performance, most people have experienced "stage fright" to some degree. This fear is so serious that many people rank public speaking higher than death when surveyed about their greatest fears. How could one possibly fear public speaking more than death itself? Because, at the most basic level, humans are social animals.

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Believe it or not, humans weren't always at the top of the animal kingdom. Our ancestors were able to survive great threats, such as larger predators and starvation, by collaborating within a group. Group members could alert others when a threat was near or if they needed help to fight it off. This group mentality created the social beings we are today, but it also instilled a fear of ostracism. We've evolved to protect our reputations because banishment from a group had fatal consequences.

Kip Williams, a professor of psychological studies at Purdue University, explains this notion to Psychology Today: "Ostracism is not only a form of social death, it also results in death. The animal is unable to protect itself against predators, cannot garner enough food, etc., and usually dies within a short period of time."

While this is untrue for humans today, the survival instincts in your brain still process public speaking as a dangerous situation. Your innate fight-or-flight response is what activates the hypothalamus in your brain, triggering hormones that stimulate the adrenal glands in your kidneys, thus releasing adrenaline into your bloodstream. That's when your palms sweat uncontrollably, your heart races, and you can't manage to squeak out an intelligible sentence.

If you're looking for a way to pull off a great public speech, Steve Martin has some tips you might be interested in.

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