The Mysterious Dread of Public Speaking

Let’s say that the president of your company requests you to research website marketing opportunities and then to report your findings to the board of directors, at their quarterly meeting. You plunge into the project and, after much research, formulate a well-conceived strategy, replete with lucrative new business opportunities. Prior to the board’s meeting, you confer with the president. He tells you that the board of directors is going to be both impressed and delighted by your excellent new strategy. That should give you the self-assurance to enter the meeting boldly, brimming with confidence. Right?

No, on the contrary, you feel terribly anxious about the upcoming meeting, even losing sleep over it. When the moment of truth finally arrives and you approach the podium to address the board of directors, you sweat profusely, your heart races, your mouth is as dry as a dessert, there are butterflies in your stomach, and your legs are shaking like Elvis. And if that wasn’t bad enough, you look like a wreck, from having been up all night with insomnia. Had you been unprepared for your talk, all this would make sense. But you were, on the contrary, very well prepared.

The details may, of course, vary. You might, for example, be a college student giving an oral report to your history class, a parent addressing your PTA, or a businessperson being interviewed on a TV news show. But the underlying scenario is essentially the same. Of course, not everyone suffers in this fashion, but even those who are intrepid in every other aspect of their lives are not immune to this fear.

Here, then, is a real enigma: How is it that, for a great many people, the fear of public speaking is more terrifying than death itself? Delving into this mystery, we discover that the dread of public speaking is a manifestation of a far more fundamental anxiety, one that has a quasi-moral quality to it. This anxiety derives from the fact that to address a group of people is to make a claim. You are claiming that you know more about some aspect of a particular subject than your audience. It may be an entirely valid claim. You may, indeed, be the world’s foremost expert on your subject matter.

There is certainly nothing wrong at all with making a valid claim. Indeed, it is very important to educate our fellow citizens and to disseminate the truth. But, oddly enough — when you really examine your fear of public speaking — you detect a strange sense of fault, a sense that your appearance before the assembled involves an act of hubris on your part.

Furthermore, you sense that the members of the audience see right through you. They judge that you are a fraud, an imposter, a fool pretending to be wise, and a knave pretending to be moral. This troubles you, especially if you are acting in all good faith, are speaking for a good cause, and are, for the most part, are not egotistically motivated. You, therefore, find yourself perplexed. Why are you being assaulted by these troubling feelings of illegitimacy. This is not a question of having an inferiority complex or a poor self-image or a lack of self-esteem, for many people who fear public speaking are confident in every other aspect of their lives.

How can we understand this groundless sense of fault, which we are claiming lies at the root of the dread of public speaking? To make sense of it, we must understand the symbolic resonances involved with our claim to know something. If you are addressing a group of people about a particular subject, it can feel as if you are claiming to know absolutely everything, as absurd as that may sound. Yes, it may seem odd to think that a claim to know, for example, how to play a better game of bridge can, on a symbolic level of awareness, seem that one is claiming to comprehend the alpha and omega of the universe! Furthermore, absurd though it sounds, the bridge group can — on the level of psychological symbolism — appear to be the committee that determines your fate, and based on your speech, will decide whether you are immediately sent to Heaven or to Hell.

What, then, is this symbolic level of awareness, that makes us so illogical, and which lies at the heart of our emotional life? It operates by strange laws, one of which is that one thing can feel life everything. In this case, the one thing you are claiming to know (how to play better bridge) represents all knowledge. The fear, once again, is that everyone will see through your claim to omniscience, find it to be outrageous, and accuse you of arrogant pride, or hubris. What we really fear, then, when we are at the podium, is the punishing forces of Nemesis.

Alas, if we knew who we were, we would neither be subject to maddening hubris nor to the punishing assaults of Nemesis. That is why Socrates believed that we should heed the words of the Oracle of Delphi: “Know Thyself.” But how grossly unfair all this may seem! For the fearful person walking up to the podium has, in the great majority of cases, committed no crime. All she wanted to do was to share her knowledge with others, to teach the assembled to improve their bridge game. Why should she, then, shiver and shake as she does?

Here, then, is the oddity of it all: the sense of hubris and nemesis can derive not from what you did or didn’t do, but simply from the fact that you exist. To say, for example, “I am Mary Jones,” is itself, in the eyes of the gods, a falsehood, a deception. It must be punished, if the order of the universe is to be restored, after your claim to be who you are threw it into disarray. Thus the sense of fault is an ancient one, as old as Anaxamander’s notion, from 500 BC, of the four elements being punished for emerging out of the Apeiron, or the Boundless. In other words, this sense of ontological fault is not predicated on what you did, but just on the fact that you exist as a separate being. Let us return to the poor fellow who was addressing the board of directors to see how this sense of ontological fault plays out, in his case…

Who do you think you are?
I remember reading somewhere — I’m pretty sure that it was in a book by Alan Watts — that ordinary questions often have a far deeper import than we usually realize. A question that comes to mind is one that is often posed by irritated parents, teachers, and other authority figures: “Who do you think you are?!” If Watts is correct, the question resonates with ontological meaning. This is because the question is really asking about who we take ourselves to be, and whether our sense of self is a valid one.

Here, again, we are not purely rational beings, but apprehend everything on a symbolic and mythic level of awareness. In this case, what we apprehend is what people say, or simply the looks that they give us. So, here it is that you are giving a speech and you hear that question, silently asked, by every member of the audience, “Who, the heck, do you think you are?!” Here is the subtext, more or less — all taking place, in a split second — as you stand up to deliver your speech. Imagine that your name is Bernard Smith:

President of company: I’d like to turn the meeting over to our illustrious sales manager, Bernard Smith. He has devised a new website marketing strategy that is going to really knock your socks off!
Board of Directors (shouting in unison): Ooh-rah! Ooh-rah!! Ooh-rah!!!
Bernard: I have devised a new website marketing strategy that promises to…
CEO: Who do you think you are?!
Bernard Smith: I’m sales manager for…
CEO: Who do you REALLY think you are?!
Bernard: Bernard Smith?
Vice President: We all know that personal identity is really what Zen masters call a mask, out of which the spirit speaks. Ever watch a Japanese Noh play, Mr. Smith?
Bernard: No…
Vice President: That’s right, a Noh play.
Bernard: I mean no, I haven’t seen any lately.
Vice President: Are you familiar with Jungian psychology, Mr. Smith? Are you aware that Jung refers to our personality as merely a persona, and that this persona is just a social fiction?
Bernard: I took a psych elective, as part of my marketing degree…
COO: OK, then, who do you think you really are?
Bernard: The other day, my girlfriend called me a rascal…
President: Being a rascal might be part of your persona, but it’s not the real you Bernard. Let’s put the question this way — what was your face before you were born?
Bernard: OK, I give up, I don’t know who I really am…
Board of Directors (chanted in unison, like a Greek chorus): We can see by the way your palms sweat, the way your legs shake, and from the butterflies in your stomach, that you are concerned with knowing yourself. Then go find yourself, your true self, and when you think you know who you are report back to us to tell us what you found. Until then, you are banished and please leave your key to the executive bathroom, with the receptionist, on your way out!

If this is, more or less, the subtext of every encounter of an anxious speaker and his or her audience — which neither speaker nor audience consciously realize — why does it only occur when we give a speech and not at other times? Actually, it can emerge in any context. For example, to a person plagued by self-doubts — which includes, to varying degrees, over 95% of the population — the innocent smile of a baby can raise unsettling questions about selfhood. This is because the eyes of a baby do not have a social filtering system, such that allows older people to be deceived by protective layers of appearance. Similarly, the eyes of someone who has seen through the delusions of selfhood can also have that unsettling effect.

A typical group, on the other hand, is comprised predominantly of people who are unsure of themselves. They should, therefore pose no threat and yet they do to a public speaker. There is something about the power of a group that puts one’s claim — to be the person one says one is — into question.

From Jean-Paul Sartre to Dale Carnegie
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about the “look of the other.” When another person is looking at you, there is a danger that they will become the subject and you the object. To be an object is to be a thing, something to be used. No one, except maybe a masochist, wants that. When the two of you look at each other, it becomes a battle of who will become the subject, the knower.

When an entire audience looks at the speaker, they naturally have the advantage. It is you who stands there naked for them. That is why Dale Carnegie recommends, in one of his primers of public speaking, that the fearful speaker imagine that each and every person in his or her audience are sitting there stark naked. Although Carnegie never attempted a Sartrean analysis, it would appear that by imagining the audience as naked, we have turned these subjects into objects, bereft of their individuality and their humanity. As objects, the members of the audience are incapable of posing that unsettling existential question: “Who do you think you are?!”

Carnegie’s approach may be efficacious. Similarly, you can join Toastmasters and get practice speaking before the other members of your local chapter. Or, you can simply force yourself to speak in public, and by doing it enough overcome your fear. There are many such approach. These are really the equivalent of behavioral therapy techniques applied to aversions. The problem with behavioral approaches is that the underlying question, the $60,000 question — “Who do you think you are?” — is still there for you, after the particular aversion is gone. And your self-doubt are still there. And Nemesis is still there. If Freud is correct about symptom substitution, then the question “Who do you think you are?” will just emerge on some other occasion, like the return of the repressed, and indeed it does!

For example, you might be driving along, when a rude driver cuts you off. Furthermore, he yells to you: “Moron!” You feel terribly offended and think aloud: “How dare you call me a moron! I am not a moron! I know who I am Mr., and I’m pretty sure that I’m not a moron. Hell, I graduated Harvard and I drive a Lexus! OK, so I’m not really all that sure who I am. But even if I am a moron, you have no right calling me one. Who do you think you are putting me into self-doubt? I’ll show you! I’ll catch up with your car and I’ll you something worse!”

Therefore, the person who has not answered the question — “Who do you think you are?” — can have the question emerge at any time, usually unannounced. The dread of public speaking and road-rage are only two of numerous possible instances. The cure for the dread of public speaking is, therefore, to know oneself. And when you do, you will find that you are and you are not the person you thought you were. You are still Bernard Jones or Mary Smith, but you are also the spirit that speaks through one of these masks. Then, when you walk up to the podium, there will be no fear, for you see that your audience are but fellow performers in the Noh play called life.

Possible Objections
There are a number of possible objections to our thesis, but we shall only consider a few.

1. First of all, one could object that there are people who have never experienced the fear of public speaking. How can our theory account for that fact? Most likely, these individuals are blockheads whose lack of self-awareness protects them from self-doubts. Often, such individuals become politicians. When self-doubts do begin to emerge, they hit the bottle, for alcohol — and drugs too — dulls self-awareness, and thus dulls self-doubts.

2. Secondly, not all speeches involve the conferring information and ideas, and therefore the claim to know is not there, along with the hubris attendant upon that claim. For example, what about speeches whose purpose it is to persuade? One can be fearful in such cases too, for it is implied, if one is making a persuasive speech, that he knows more than the audience.

3. Some people have found that they had no real fear of public speaking, but then — maybe when they got into their early twenties — they suddenly developed this fear. How can we explain that? What essentially happened is that they became self-reflective, in a significant way, for the first time. I.E., they became there for themselves. With self-consciousness comes questions of self-justification, and, with that, the fear of what other people think of us.

4. It’s also the case that one may have been anxious all one’s life about public speaking and then, all of a sudden, the fear is gone. What happened? You could, to varying degrees, have come to know yourself. You need not attain Buddhahood, although it would be nice. Sometimes, just by getting older a person develops a more modest view of himself — gone is the hubris — coupled with a more realistic view of other people.

As a result, you become more comfortable in your skin and are no longer intimidated by situations that, in earlier years, you took too seriously. But, while getting older is usually necessary, it is not sufficient, for their are plenty of old fools. It is usually necessary to have suffered a good deal and then to have reflected on one’s suffering. Then, you will feel lighter, for so much false seriousness will be gone. And, in a certain very real way, you will feel younger. That is one of the blessing of aging. As the philosopher Bob Dylan sings: “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

5. Some people actually enjoy public speaking. How do you explain that? Yes, the world is full of windbags, who are in love with the sound of their own voice. Some use their voice to hypnotize desperate fools, with the intention of picking their pockets. These demagogues use various phrases to place people into a hypnogogic stupor, such as “Hope and Change! Yes, we can! Hope and Change! Yes we can!” And if that doesn’t work, there’s always the tried and true: “It’s Bush’s fault! It’s Bush’s fault!”

Then, there are those modern evangelists, for superficial thinking and shallow living, called “motivational speakers.” They are far less dangerous than the demagogues, for their message soon evaporates after a day or two, as their enthusiastic audience lapses back into the the boredom of their ho-hum existence, until the next false-promiser offers to lift them out of their wretchedness.

6. There are those who protest: “I don’t need no stinken insight into my fear of public speaking. I just need PowerPoint!” Well, PowerPoint — and similar slide-shows that many weak speakers rely on, like a crutch — should have been prohibited by the civilized nations of the world, just as they outlawed the use of mustard gas, during World War I. At least waterboarding is interesting, but PowerPoint is boring, boring, boring! What has the audience done to you that you would subject them to this torture? Perhaps you’re thinking that YOUR PowerPoint presentations are the exception, that they’re really interesting. Yeah right. Let’s just say that the prisons are full of people who think that they’re the exception.

7. There really is no seventh item here, but the new marketing director for Plato’s Attaché, Mr. Bernard Smith, tells me that people like a list that has either five, seven, or ten items on it. Six would have fallen flat-footed. So there you have it, seven items.

What about Stage Fright?
What can we say about stage fright? Is it akin to the fear of public speaking? Is Nemesis similarly punishing the anxious actor or entertainer for a claim of some sort? It would seem that the claim being made, in the case of an a performer, is that what he or she has to offer is worth the audience’s time, energy, and the price of admission. There are top-notch, critically acclaimed performers, who still get stage fright. Questions of self-worth are still alive for them, and will always be there, unless they have answered the even more fundamental question of who they are.

Furthermore, it would seem that performing on stage lends itself to doubts about self-worth, for it intrinsically involves a deception. This is obviously true in the case of an actor, for he is pretending to be who he is not. To some degree, the actor feels justified, for the audience participates in his deception. Indeed, they are there to be deceived, just as they are when they pay a magician to trick them with his illusions. Furthermore, it makes a difference that this deception may well be for the sake of revealing beauty and truth. Indeed, the purpose of the virtual reality created by the stage or the cinema is to shed a true light on our everyday reality.

But, here again, our fears are not rational, but psychological. They are not logical, but symbolic. That is why the actor who does not really know who he is can feel a sense of fault for pretending to be who he is not. He fears that the audience may be thinking: “Look at the fool pretending to be who he is not, thinking that he is deceiving us! Ha! He thinks he’s Hamlet, but we know he’s really just Bernard Smith, who works by day as a sales manager. Yes, he is in the words of the Bard ‘…a poor player, who struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more.’” Over time, if he gets “absorbed” in his role, Bernard will forget that he is Bernard, and so will no longer suffer his usual self-doubts, and his concomitant stage fright. (Perhaps, that is one of the appeals of being an actor, the possibility of being able to forget oneself, for a time.) Instead, Bernard will experience — during that time he is on stage — all of the joys and sorrows that his particular character suffers.

What about the case of an entertainer, such as a singer or comedian? An entertainer has an act. The entertainer may pretend to be spontaneous, but those who really know him or her knows that what you see is not what you get. The entertainer has created a part and is playing that part, night after night. That is why entertainers often feel invisible, for what the audience sees is fictional character, a fabricated persona! Here, too, there is a deception and a sense of fault arising from it. Here, again, the initial self-doubts usually fade as the performer gets absorbed in his or her role.