Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"The fear of public speaking or performing is more than anything a fear of being eaten."

So says Mary Fensholt, a consultant and author of The Francis Effect: The Real Reason You Hate Public Speaking and How To Get Over It. Fensholt was interviewed for this MSNBC article on stage fright:

Building on the theories of sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, Fensholt argues that historically, being intently scrutinized and singled out was a prelude to being eaten by a predator, so human ancestors evolved a strong fear response against setting themselves apart from the protection of the group.

It's a fascinating theory, but all we really know for sure is that stage fright represents the fight or flight response, says Shara Sand, clinical assistant professor of psychology at New York's Yeshiva University. Sand is also a trombonist who has had firsthand experience with stage fright.

"What primitively is going on is that there's a kind of exposure and vulnerability," she says. And even though there isn't any real danger, it can feel like there is.

So my stage fright is nothing more than a fear of being eaten, that's good to know. But heck, I might order the book just to find out how to get over thinking I am going to be some predator's dinner.



Blogger Unknown said...

" human ancestors evolved a strong fear response against setting themselves apart from the protection of the group."

This explains people who demand unique attention how?

Like many ideas in sociology that they try to pin on evolution, it just doesn't wash. Humans are much more noteworthy for their lack of ingrained responses than for their presence.

2:41 PM, September 12, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hey, someone has to feed the big kitties. There is a place for everyone.

I think that each personality type had its place in evolutionary history no matter how unfit it may seem today or in any given situation.

Example: Smart but gullible people. Think a village or tribe with only a few hundred people. If every necessary smart tribesman questioned everything done or decisions by their leaders, they would probably jeopardize the tribe's survival. On the other hand, you would need skeptic as well to point out irrational decisions/views.

4:16 PM, September 12, 2007  
Blogger Thor's Dad said...

So why then do some of us (if not all) take those risks of separating ourselves from the "herd/group" and do the unique thing. Why were there pioneers and explorers - successes and failures - who put the fear of being eaten aside and acted like - individuals? Not that I don't believe that the support of others is a wonderful thing and often a necessary thing but if our ancestors had always caved to the majority we might still be collectively wetting our fig leaf britches. Thank God many didn't and still do not.

4:51 PM, September 12, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

Social Evolution is pretty much an edge science, nearly a pseudo-science at this point since there are no time machines. Or as Scott Adams may call it, "philosotainment."

Please note that my point is that there is a place for every personality type. We cannot all be the brave explorers, or we would die out quickly or at least not continue to exist as a social animal. However, without a few bold ones, we would stagnate and some other, better adapting animal would out evolve us and make us lunch.

5:05 PM, September 12, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to your PowerPoint presentation...

5:46 PM, September 12, 2007  
Blogger julie said...

Hmmm. Having been through it a time or two, I'm pretty sure the symptoms I experienced - shaking, sweating, near-hyperventilating, and a basic inability to function properly - would have made it more likely I'd be eaten were I being scrutinized by a predator, not less.

No, I'm pretty sure I was actually, honestly terrified of looking like a total jackass in front of my classmates and dooming myself to ridicule. I would imagine, by her logic, that the fear of being ostracized (and therefore theoretically less likely to thrive in a primitive environment) would be just as strong of a motivator as the fear of being eaten.

But then again, what do I know? I'm not a professional theorist, after all.

6:18 PM, September 12, 2007  
Blogger Cham said...

If you do enough of anything you can conquer your fears. Nobody enjoys being scrutinized or singled out, and it is most comforting to be in the protection of a group. The fight or flight response can be expected even in the most precarious situation, and nobody enjoys exposure or vulnerability.

Twice now I have gotten between a mother bear and her cub while hiking alone, once with a grizzly and once with a black bear. Last month while backpacking alone I was sniffed by a large black male bear while encased in my sleeping bag unable to move. After so many encounters with large beasts who might want to eat me I have definitely overcome my fear of being eaten. I have no idea how I would react to having to speak publicly.

8:37 PM, September 12, 2007  
Blogger Bruce Hayden said...

I can think of two things that you can do to overcome the stage fright most get with public speaking:

- Take a Dale Carnegie class. You quickly learn that almost everyone has the same problems and you get to work on the fear in a well controlled, helpful, environment.

- Toastmasters. Yes, they can get hypercritical, but you get constant exposure at public speaking. I belonged to a small club in Phoenix where we got to speak almost every week, and that was great. Bigger clubs don't give you as much chance.

The best thing I did preparing for law school was taking a Dale Carnegie class, and then returning as an assistant (i.e. unpaid) instructor. Within a week of starting law school, I realized I had a leg up on most of the other students because the profs couldn't intimidate me, as is their wont (I am sure that Glen isn't like that, but many 1L profs are). All thanks to Dale Carnegie.

10:07 PM, September 12, 2007  
Blogger Charlie Martin said...

But, um, sometimes I kind of like being eaten ....

10:24 PM, September 12, 2007  
Blogger Sebastian said...

Interesting timing. Tonight I had to get up in front of my shooting club's general meeting and ask them why they aren't allowing NRA to communicate with membership. I was working really hard to not be visibly shaking, because I had difficulty with public speaking. I tend to calm down once I get going, but the anxiety working up to it is difficult.

Interesting theory. Perhaps our legislative officer was thinking I would taste good smoked, and covered in BBQ sauce :)

1:40 AM, September 13, 2007  
Blogger tomcal said...

I suffered for years from stage fright, and it always confused me because in general I really enjoy speaking in public. So the fear was actually cutting me off from something I liked doing.

I finally figured it out though. It only happens when I feel obligated to push an agenda or sell an idea that I don't believe in. When I was younger, working for other people, many times I had to get up and tout the company line - all the while thinking in the back of my mind "I don't beleive in what I am being forced to say. I'm only saying it because it is my job to push these ideas out the door and if I don't do it I won't get paid and my children will starve."

Once I went into business for myself, I was able to chose my own battles; and for the most part speak of ideas in which I truly believe.

That has made all the difference. I say what I believe, advocate for what I believe, I can do it all day long, I don't care what people think, and I love it.

As long as what I say in front of a crowd is heartfelt, my heart beats normally. But it took me 20 years to figure it out.

3:05 AM, September 13, 2007  
Blogger tomcal said...

The other thing is that when you are out there in the spotlight, your audience is looking at you as though you are an expert in your subject, when in fact many times you feel that you don't know squat about it. Kind of the "the more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know" syndrome. So you are out there with all of these people looking at you as though you are an expert, and maybe you are, but since you know all of the possible unknowns of what you are saying, you feel like you are your audience. That goes back to the heartfelt thing.

I have overcome that problem by opening with a statement that everything I say might be proven wrong in the future, I'm just doing my best to relay what we think we know now.

3:21 AM, September 13, 2007  
Blogger tomcal said...

One more thing: I have found that a great exercise is getting a small group, maybe just your family and a few friends, and everyone has to speak about something. But they don't knoow what is is until the moment you are up. The group hands you a piece of paper that says "3 minutes on hybrid cars", or "1 minute on those hot air hand dryers in airport restrooms". By doing this you learn to speak on the fly, while being as rediculous and corny as you want to be, while fitting it into a specified time.

I learned this at a class I took 5 or 6 years ago and it has been tremendously helpful.

3:31 AM, September 13, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

I was a museum curator (since retired) and gave a LOT of tours. Young people, old people, experts, novices; people by the dozens, people in ones or twos.

I was standing on the same floor they were, and they could talk back if they wanted. It was a nice situation of first-among-equals.

Learning to talk in a continuum like that left me unafraid when I was in front of a larger group. It was the same, after all -- just larger.

We all have our own learning experiences.

11:35 AM, September 13, 2007  
Blogger Eric said...

human ancestors evolved a strong fear response against setting themselves apart from the protection of the group.

I think another element may be protection from the group itself, and not just the desire to obtain the group's protection against predators. In many human societies, "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down."

2:12 PM, September 13, 2007  
Blogger Helen said...


I'm with you--I think much of the fear is that others will hurt you, not that they will protect you.

2:46 PM, September 13, 2007  
Blogger Serket said...

It makes sense that a fear of predators would affect our psychology as evolution is a slow process. I originally misread your title as "The fear of public speaking or performing is more than the fear of being eaten." That reminded me that once I heard fear of death is lower than fear of presentations.

5:05 PM, September 13, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In my younger days I was a guitar player - singer in numerous rock and roll bands and beach music bands. It was a nightmare for quite a while until getting used to "stage fright". I never got over stage fright, just got used to "performing while extremely anxious". My love for playing music overruled my anxiety.

In my line of work I give a lot of seminars to large groups of people. Whenever more than 30 miles from home (making me the designated expert)and the audience is there for the purpose of being taught,it is easier. Sometimes though, you are in front of a hostile audience (reasonable, though) explaining and sometimes defendiong your position and your company's products / position. That is never easy. If you show fear or insecurity it makes the audience uncomfortable, and everyone just wants it over. Even if what you have to say is important, even necessary for the project at hand. And you don't get through very well.

I tell you, it makes me admire George W. Bush more than I can convey. That man NEVER has anything but a hostile audience to speak in front of.

12:06 AM, September 14, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, by the way - the statement made about imagining everyone in the audience is naked, or just wearing underwear - does nothing to help. Actually, it is rather gross to visualize when looking at some of the people making up a usual audience.

12:16 AM, September 14, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I ate a trombonist once. Yummy.

10:04 PM, September 15, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What do you call a trombonist with a beeper and a cell phone?

An optimist.

Lots of musician jokes sites and instrument joke sites on the web. Incredibly funny, and ironic, especially if one is a musician trying to make a living at it.

7:43 PM, September 16, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

br, I always suspected you were a closeted accordion player. Was I wrong?

4:29 PM, September 17, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Playing the accordion always gave me purple nurples, bugs. Gave it up. I can't imagine a female accordion player. Savage amusement.

Plus, just not too many zydeco bands around once you go a block either way of Bourbon, or don't play for Lawrence Welk's band.

1:00 AM, September 21, 2007  
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