THE BLOG

Feeling the Fear of Public Speaking

02/04/2014 11:36 BST | Updated 01/06/2014 10:59 BST

I don't know how many of you have dabbled in self-help, but there is a niggling inconsistency to the general message of 'heal thyself' that has always thrown me. Is the pathway to fulfilment reached by following my bliss - or - by feeling the fear and doing it anyway? Am I going to get closer to the meaning of life by sitting in a lotus position and making sure I have fresh flowers in my house or should I be leaping out of airplanes? '

Being fundamentally a sybarite, I have always opted for the former. Or rather I thought I was opting for the former. I am now beginning to wonder if there may have been some biology involved in making me incapable of watching a scary movie or travel outside the developed world, while I was raising young children. I am suddenly remembering, how before the dustpan and lids arrived, I used to love a good rollercoaster ride. Hell, I even made an anti-apartheid movie in Namibia while the bad guys were still in charge. That mother nature sure is a crafty one.

What got me to cotton-on to the biological aspect of courage, is that without even thinking about it, a mere twenty-one years since my first child was born, I am suddenly open to feeling the fear again. For the first time in a long while - I want to push myself. I want to see what I can do. I suppose from nature's point of view, I've served my purpose in furthering the species. My seatbelt has been taken off, so to speak. "Here, have your guts back." She seems to be saying, "Go crazy. See what I care." So I did my first scary thing last week. I spoke in public.

I thought I would write about it because as Jerry Seinfield once joked that at a funeral, most of us would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy. I used to be able to stand up at a wedding and give a toast, but the wimpy years set me back. A while ago, I was asked to speak for a few minutes to a group of potential funders about a charity that I volunteered with. When my moment came, I got up full of conviction. Within possibly ninety seconds - max, I realized I had forgotten to breathe, my mouth was dry, my voice began to get all trembly, I even started to tear up at one point. In short it was a disaster. Right then and there, I joined the majority, and developed a fear of ever having to stand in front of a group and speak again.

The National Institute of Mental Health in the US, says 74% of us have a fear of speaking in public - and yes, it does outrank our fear of death, which comes in at a mere 68%. Vertigo, fear of flying, claustrophobia all make a lot more sense than glossophobia - clinical term. Falling off a cliff could kill you, so could a lack of oxygen; but talking? Why is an activity which involves very little physical risk - so frightening? According to the accepted psychology, it is because we still carry with us a fear of being separated from the pack. In caveman days, we sought safety in numbers. Isolation, left us open to being killed and eaten. In 2014 it appears the threat of a vicious critic is just as scary as a mother lion seeking to feed us to her young. Our limbic system can't tell the two apart.

I don't want to exaggerate the extent of my first public speaking engagement. I did not address the UN. I spoke for half an hour or so to a group of sixteen women. Still it was a start.

In case you too are thinking about putting yourself out there, here's what I did to get ready. First, I took a half day public speaking course with Edie Lush, a former news reader and business journalist - who coaches speakers on both sides of the Atlantic. Many of her clients are corporate, so I am very grateful to the How To Academy for making her available to those of us on freelancer's budgets. Learning the basics in a group taught me two things I didn't expect. The first is that contrary to what our club wielding ancestors would have experienced, when anyone gets up to speak, your audience actually wants you to succeed. Everyone loves listening to a good story; even a good enough story will do. The addendum to that point is that if you are feeling vulnerable up there, it's better to be honest about it. People are apparently nicer than we think. Engaging the empathy of an audience, when genuine, is supposed to work wonders for your popularity. The second thing that surprised me was learning that 90% of communication - even when you are all alone with a microphone in front of you - is non-verbal. Posture, how you move, your passion for your subject are all communicating for you. What you say is only 10% of the package. So relax, was the message; they're not even really listening.

As a result, a lot of what Edie taught us was quite physical . Did you know that you can lower your cortisol levels just by standing properly. Check out this Ted Talk on the subject. It is fascinating. I can't give you all Edie's tips, because that is her job not mine. Let me just say her straightforward techniques worked brilliantly when the moment came.

The other thing I did was to practice. My brother was given professional training on how to speak and his teacher made the point that speaking for business usually involves standing in front of an audience for forty minutes or more. Trained actors go through weeks of rehearsal to speak half as much. So I practiced, practiced, practiced.

Finally, the night before I gave my wee talk, I had a friend come over and listen to me. She works with CEO's, teaching them how to communicate big picture stuff. Her gift was to get me to appreciate the value of my own voice; my own thoughts. I have been writing for years, but finding my voice as a speaker was different. My talk was on Modern Marriage. She helped me realize that everything I had to say had been synthesised during those years of not living dangerously; during the years I judged myself as being a bit of a wimp and a mere mom. When the big day came, I was fine. I wasn't even nervous. It all seemed incredibly natural. Women took notes, they clapped, they came up to me afterwards and told me their stories and thanked me for telling them mine. I loved it.

Should we be going for bliss or doing one thing everyday that scares us? I think for women, it depends on what stage of life we are at. When we are in the business of protecting young lives, we should give ourselves a break and realise that our risk taking hormones have receded for a reason. It has been a great surprise to find that they come back.

The adventure of the female experience continues to amaze me.