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Dislodging the Public Speaking Demon

Dislodging the Public Speaking Demon

by Guest contributor Richard Smith on August 9, 2013

“The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public” ~ George Jessel


It is a common fear. We all recognise the symptoms – sweaty palms, loss of appetite, restlessness, dry mouth, shortness of breath, a tight throat, nausea, dread…

Anxiety about public speaking impacts most of us at some point in our lives

To a large number of people it can become a barrier in their careers. The medical term is Glossophobia, and it’s a big one. Fear of public speaking routinely comes top in the list of the biggest phobias worldwide.

To those scheduled to speak, the discomfort emerges early

Thinking about standing in front of the audience raises anxiety, which becomes a demon on our backs.

A conscious effort not to think about public speaking can work for short spells, but this is an avoidance tactic and soon the demon reminds us of his presence, larger and fiercer than before.

What is the source of the phobia of public speaking?

It’s a fear alluded to by Jessel, that the brain will stop working; the anxiety will win over and we will suffer ‘death’ in front of everyone.

Comedians who fail on stage are said to suffer a death. The root of our fear is that the potential humiliation of failure will be too great from which to ever recover.

The demon we carry on our backs exaggerates how awful it will truly be

Which increases our anxiety. This feeds the demon, who exaggerates further in a catastrophic loop of dread.  The closer the impending event, the bigger grows the dread. At this stage seemingly inevitable public humiliation is only moments away…

There are sensible actions that can be taken to treat the anxiety

Good preparation helps – but it is not the complete solution, as even those most comfortable with public speaking need adequate preparation. Knowing your subject is often cited as way to speak without fear, but again this is just a confidence building strategy.

Confidence alone doesn’t dispel the anxiety

After all, the demon was created in our own heads when we already retained a degree of confidence.

Those comfortable speaking in public rarely offer useful advice – ‘It’s easy, just get up there’, or ‘There’s nothing to it.’

That’s because they don’t battle any demons – they’ve dislodged them completely. It’s almost as if they ‘know’ there is nothing to fear.

Your demon may need a different solution

In the timeless 1974 book  Change, authors Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch discuss problem resolution that they classify as first-order or second-order. The fear of public speaking is a classic first-order problem.

Using first-order solutions, the battle may be partially won, and the anxiety may even be reduced to a manageable level. However, the fact that these are first-order solutions means the choice is still between having a strong demon or a weak demon on our backs as we stand up to speak.

What is needed is a second-order solution that can be applied

Watzlawick offers a solution that changes the whole mindset: A way to dislodge the demon, and which constitutes a second-order, or meta-change that can be lasting and effective.

We know we carry the demon, because it has been taunting us. Anxiety is caused because we want to appear calm and composed despite feeling the opposite.

Our old solution has become the problem

So what if we try to reveal the demon to our audience?

Watzlawick proposes that the first words of the speech should be along the lines of, ‘I am extremely nervous and my anxiety will probably overwhelm me’.

Immediately our deepest fear and the source of our anxiety has been revealed. In doing so, there is no longer conflict in trying to hide any anxiety. The dread melts away, and the demon is dislodged.


Guest contributor Richard Smith

Richard Smith is a leader in the environmental industry, consulting with the University of Hertfordshire. His role includes consulting, management training and executive coaching. He is a believer in development and learning, especially in relational settings. The day we stop learning is our last on Earth, until then we never know the limits of how much we can grow.

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