What Causes Debilitating Fear In Public Speaking?

What Causes Debilitating Fear In Public Speaking?

Through my many years teaching voice and presentation skills, I have found that those who experience truly debilitating, gut-wrenching fear of public speaking have had a bad experience sometime during their elementary or even middle school years when they’ve been required to stand and speak. And while that one event may not affect every child the same way, for some the damage can be traumatic.

Please understand that I am not talking about the usual nervousness experienced by most of us making a presentation or giving a speech. That nervousness is good. It is beneficial: that extra spurt of adrenaline can help make your delivery exhilarating. In my business, I don’t advocate the elimination of nervousness; instead, I teach people how to control it, allowing it to work for them, not against them.

Here, however, I am talking about a fear of public speaking that is extreme and is a result of an embarrassing or humiliating experience during childhood that the individual cannot forget. By the way, those who tell me that they don’t remember such an event have often repressed that memory, hoping to never think about it again because it is too painful.

Public speaking is tough without a doubt. Having children in their elementary years stand up and speak to a group of their peers is tougher. All it takes is one mispronunciation of a word, one lapse of memory, one embarrassing faux pas, one humiliating remark from another student or from the teacher, and that child will never want to stand and speak again. Being laughed at by one’s classmates is agonizing.

Obviously, I am not an advocate of public speaking in elementary school. I think it is a mistake and I don’t believe we need to place our children in that scenario at that tender age. In today’s schools where kids are meaner and less disciplined than they’ve ever been, we are just adding fuel to the fire. Certainly not every child will have a bad experience; but, is it worth it for those children who will suffer? [I am not talking about class plays which I think are a positive experience because they involve group participation. With the play, the child is not being singled out and has the entire class as support.]

One of my clients, a psychiatrist from Toronto, whose specialty was working with severely abused adults, was being asked to speak at various symposiums and conventions throughout Canada and the United States. She came to me because of her inability to get up on that stage. Upon talking to her, I discovered that at the age of 7, she and her cousin had performed a song in front of a group of people. When it was over, her father told her that she was terrible. Admittedly, Frances had lived through years of abuse by her father but she was an amazingly resilient woman and she was confident that it was that particular event that caused her to avoid public attention ever again.

While working with Francis I was able to build up her level of confidence because she had a truly magnificent speaking voice. I tested her and I also knew that she could sing; therefore, I was able to assure her that when she was 7, she probably did sing well and that her father was a stupid and wrong man for treating her the way he did. (Actually, he died during the time I was working with her and she flew back to Ireland to ‘nail his coffin shut!’)

While you may think Francis’ example is extreme, it really isn’t. If you knew all the horror stories I’ve heard through the years, you would understand. In today’s world where growing up is harder than it’s ever been, do we really need to subject our children to an experience that could do irreparable damage to their self-esteem? Let’s take that one pressure off of them and use other positive means of bolstering their confidence and self-image.

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