Public Speaking Nerves

Why the body responds as it does to public speaking.

When early man was attacked by wild animals, the body sent panic alarms to the neural pathways in the oldest part of the brain, the amygdala. When you are nervous, the amygdala, still assumes you are in physical danger and sends an electro-chemical alarm to ‘fight or flee’. This response is, of course, out of proportion to the ‘threat’ of public speaking but the body is only trying to protect you.

Seven Deadly Stages of Public Speaking Nerves

So this is literally what happens in the body the moment you stand up and speak in public:

Heart pounding?

1st : A message is sent to the Heart, to increase the heart rate and raise blood pressure.

Feeling light headed?

2nd : Another message is sent to the Lungs, to increase breathing for fighting or running.

But that energy has to go somewhere. We exhale too quickly causing an imbalance of carbon dioxide. As we are not in physical danger this is not used up so we end up hyperventilating, feeling light headed, with tingly cheeks and fingers. (Some people even faint completely – as Winston Churchill did in his Maiden speech in Parliament.)

Dry throat?

3rd : The amygdala shuts down the Salivary system. You are going to need loads of air to fight this wild animal, and you don’t want to choke on your own saliva. So now you have dry throat and mouth.

Got that sickly feeling?

4th : The amygdala deliberately draws blood away from the stomach – all blood is needed to give muscles extra fire power so there is no time for digestion. In fact it wants an empty stomach, intestines, bladder and bowel – and fast! After dinner speakers rarely enjoy their meal for this reason. Food doesn’t even taste normal at this time – often bitter and unappetising.

Eyes watering?

5th : Adrenalin is sent shooting to the eyes to find a quick escape route . Eyes are left darting around the room often staring at the ceiling or floor. We can behave like a child: “If I can’t see the Tiger, perhaps the Tiger can’t see me.” After all, it’s sensible to avoid eye contact with dominant, aggressive male Gorillas. These responses are primitive. So don’t beat yourself up when you avoid the audience and look at the floor – your subconscious thinks the audience is an aggressive Gorilla!

Mind going blank?

6th : At times of life threatening danger, the amygdala downgrades the importance of the brain. Running away is more important than thinking about running away! So whilst blood is surging into the muscles, it is ebbing away from the brain. Heroic people when interviewed after disasters often say, “I don’t remember much about it – it was all a blur.” Or an actor winning an Oscar proceeds to blurt out ecstatic nonsense about everybody from their cat to their cleaner.

Lost your voice?

7th and lastly : The amygdala also downgrades the importance of the voice. Presumably one would keep as quite as possible in the face of the Tiger.

Help is at hand

So there you are, standing up in front of a group of people, and your muscles start to shake, you feel sick, you can’t remember a word, your mouth goes dry, you can’t swallow and your voice stops working. Not great is it?!

Knowing the reasons why we feel panic and fear when speaking in public, can help us realise that it is not a failing in us – it is merely an animal response. A response that every other human ‘animal’ feels. We just have to learn how to cope with it – and how to use all that adrenalin to our advantage.

About the author of this public speaking article

This article was written by Robin, one of Skillstudio’s consultant trainers. 

Robin is based in London, is an excellent trainer; and runs many of our public speaking training sessions (from 1-2-1 coaching through to Masterclasses).  You can read his training bio here. 

To get some coaching in public speaking, click on one of the links below:-

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