What's the first thing you were told about public speaking in grade school?
When I was in third grade, Mrs. Olson had us stand in front of the class and read stories we'd written. Nicky Kramer looked down at her story on the blue-lined paper and stammered her first words. Mrs. Olson jumped in, "Just relax, Nicky. Be yourself."
As far as helpful advice in a moment of crisis, the suggestion to relax and be yourself is pretty good. But since many of us flash back on our own Nicky moment when standing in front of an audience, the subject of "stage fright" and what to do about it is also helpful.
First, what is this uneasy feeling all about? Think back a few hundred million years to your closest reptilian ancestor. Basically, in his world, everything is sorted into two buckets: what's safe, and what's dangerous. What I can do and keep breathing, and what I will do that cause me to stop breathing. What I can live through, and what I can't.
For our ancestor, and the reptile part of our brain which is in charge of most of our decisions, prey animals are safe for eating and predator animals are not safe, and will eat us. Birds, horses, and fish are all prey animals--they have eyes on the sides of their heads so they can scope out anything sneaking up behind them. People are predators. The only response we can have when standing in front of a bunch of other predators is to gather the energy to fight, flee, or freeze. Hence, the butterflies in your stomach when addressing to your committee meeting.
This energy rises naturally. It's not logical. It's not conscious. It's not because you're weak. It's just necessary for survival.
That's where the mammal brain comes in--the part of us that has choice. We can make a few choices about our situation that will help us here and now:
- The energy we feel is natural.
- The energy we feel is helpful.
- The energy we feel is an indication that we are ready to perform.
And since we choose to perform, we get to have the experience of being ourselves and still belonging to the group we are with. We learn that anything we can breathe during is an experience we can survive. And we can use the natural energy we feel to reach out and connect with our audiences in a good way.
Because we can say one thing for certain. As bad as it felt then, anyone reading this now did not actually die in front of class in third grade. In fact, we've been breathing our way through new experiences ever since. Nicely done, Nicky. Gold stars for everyone.