Of Life and Death, Spiders, and Public Speaking

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-images-public-speaking-sign-image14297094One of those oft-heard “truisms” is that people’s #1 fear is public speaking. We hear it so often, it must be true. Yeah, and if you tell a lie, your nose will grow and if you cross your eyes you they will stay that way.

I have no doubt that on a questionnaire, fear of public speaking comes out ahead of death and spiders, but I am very skeptical as to the fact of it actually being the #1 fear.

Let me put it this way: If I point a gun at you and say, “Either give us a speech about turnips or I’m going to shoot you,” I guarantee that you will be scouring your grey matter to recall if turnips are purple on the bottom and white on top, or vice versa in preparation to take the microphone.

Still, I read it this week in a scientific study, fear of public speaking tops death and spiders as the #1 fear. For me, it might be death BY spiders while eating turnips.

We all do have to speak in public at some time, though. It may be in school for a class, at work while giving a presentation, or at a party where everyone has to talk about something interesting from their past.

In those times, our heart rate rises, our palms get sweaty, and the butterflies dance around the turnips in our stomach. That seems bad, but actually, it can be really good.

We have those reactions to the stress of performing in public and think that all stress is bad. It isn’t. We hear “stress” and think “heart attack” or ”stressed out” and want to flee, but we shouldn’t. The truth is that some stress is good. Stress can be our friend and can bring a peak performance.

The sweaty palms and stomach butterflies are actually our body preparing for something important. Blood is being diverted from our arms and legs where we don’t need it as much and is pumping more to our body’s inner core where we do. (And you thought having “cold feet” was just a saying!) Adrenalin is being pumped into our system.

When you have a big job interview or need to present a project to the boss, stress can really help you if you can think of it the right way. It is making you more alert and clear-headed.

The key is to understand your stress and realize it is beneficial and embrace it.

In a recent study*  the researchers prepared half the participants by informing them about the good side of stress while half were not given the information. The ones who were prepared felt like they had the resources to cope with the task of public speaking and their physiological measurements confirmed their feelings.

So, when you feel stressed getting ready for public speaking, if you bring to mind that this stress is good for you and will help you, you will feel better and be at your peak performance level.

After all, public speaking is not a matter of life and death. Now, can you sprinkle some spiders on my turnip soup? It’s time for me to give a speech.

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*”Changing the Conceptualization of Stress in Social Anxiety Disorder: Affective and Physiological Consequences” in Clinical Psychological Science, April 8, 2013.

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