Back to the list

Death by Public Speaking

High school prom. I was shaking like an autumn leaf on a windy day. 

Terror kicked in.

I had just begun delivering a speech.  

Outranking Death 

Expert biologist Glenn Croston spent most of his life studying human fear, trying to understand what pushes our buttons. Nothing can be more intimidating than speaking in front of a group of people. American comedian Jerry Seinfeld famously joked about this:

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Now this means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral… you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy”

Could there be a link between fear of public speaking and our ancestors? 

Glossophobia Explained

In ancient times, survival of the individual depended on staying in a group. Think food, fire, and shelter. Leaving the tribe would mean a certain death. 

So based on this theory, that fear of group exclusion has survived to this very day — illustrating itself when one stands alone to speak to a group. Have a solid performance, and you’d be welcomed back to the group with a thunderous applause. Stumble in your delivery — and you’d be running the risk of dying. 

Well… it’s not really that dramatic.

A Biological Perspective

Turns out that our good ol’ fight-or-flight response is the one that makes us feel like dying when standing up to speak in front of people:

“The ‘fight or flight response’ is our body’s primitive, automatic, inborn response that prepares the body to confront or escape from perceived attack, harm or threat to our survival.” 

So… thank you Darwin? 

* * * 

Whether you believe in evolution or not, public speaking anxiety is alive and kicking in a lot of us. 

And you shouldn’t run away from it. 

Look it straight in the eye — and accept it.

That way, your prom, graduation, or Oscar acceptance speech… 

Would truly become the time of your life.