From my own personal experience, from working with thousands of people face to face, and from asking my blog readers what they find hardest about presenting, I know that the fear of public speaking is a biggie.

And not everyone who suffers from the fear of public speaking has suffered a humiliating public speaking experience.

So why do do many people have a fear of public speaking?

The theory of evolutionary psychology

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby are leaders in the field of evolutionary psychology. They say:

Our modern skulls house a stone age mind. The key to understanding how the modern mind works is to realize that its circuits were not designed to solve the day-to-day problems of a modern American — they were designed to solve the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Much of our evolution took place during the Pleistocene era (between 1.8 million years and 12,000 years ago) on the grasslands of Africa. So evolutionary psychology theorizes that our emotions and behaviors are adaptations to that environment.

From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, fear and panic—like most of our emotions—should be viewed as adaptive responses (Nesse, 1990).

The fear of public speaking as an adaptation

How could the fear of public speaking be an adaptation to that environment?

My partner, Tony Burns, developed this explanation while studying evolutionary psychology at university as part of his psychology degree.

Being part of a group was critical to our survival. We hunted big carnivores – but could only do that with the help of others. And those big carnivores were also out to eat us –  our protection was by being part of a group. You might get ostracized by the group for a variety of reasons, for example, not pulling your weight, speaking or doing something which was disapproved of, or challenging the leader. And to be separated from your group meant almost certain death. So being an accepted member of the group was critical to survival.

(Note: Although the fear of public speaking is often mentioned in evolutionary psychology texts as an evolutionary adaptation, I’ve not seen a fully articulated explanation like this one. If you know of a published explanation, I’d love to know about it).

We want to be approved of

Fast forward several hundred thousand years, and we’re not that different. Being accepted and approved of are almost ubiquitous human desires.

So you’re standing before a group ready to speak. You want their approval. And there’s a part of your brain that goes, if you don’t get their approval – you might DIE! That triggers the fight or flight response. Adrenalin floods your body priming you for physical action – hence our exploding heart beat, shaky hands and dry mouth.

These were useful responses when we were evolving on the planet, and nowadays in times of real physical danger. But not so useful when you’re standing before a group and want to look calm, credible and professional.

What does this mean?

1. Stop looking for a specific event that caused your fear of public speaking

If the fear of public speaking is an evolutionary adaptation, it means that you don’t have to have suffered a humiliating experience to have a fear of public speaking.

2. Accept that you’ll feel some nervousness when you speak before a group

For many people, nervousness is an inevitable part of speaking before a group. Even experienced presenters can expect to feel fear in some situations. For instance, I’m very comfortable talking to groups of up to 20 middle-management types – which is what I do all the time. But put me in front of a group of 500 or an audience of chief executives or teenagers, and I’ll get nervous.

Accept your nervousness – you can be nervous and still speak. For many people, the nervousness they feel, does not show. People on our courses are often surprised when they see themselves presenting on video and see that the nervousness that they felt so strongly, is not at all visible.

3. We can exacerbate our nervousness by the way we think

Some people do make their fear worse, by fighting it or by piling on the pressure. See my post on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for help with this.

Resources on evolutionary psychology

Human Behavior and Evolution Society

Evolutionary Psychology: an introduction compiled by Patrick Baron

Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer written by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby – the “fathers of evolutionary psychology”

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