This story is part of How to Get Better at Public Speaking, the Forge guide to talking in front of a crowd.
Let’s get one thing straight right away: Almost no one actually enjoys speaking to a crowd.
Sure, some people make it look effortless, sauntering around a stage with a microphone, talking as easily as if they were in their own living room. But those people are just better at faking it, says Scott Berkun, the author of Confessions of a Public Speaker. “If you had a heart rate monitor on them, they’d have the same physiological response as someone who’s too afraid to speak to a room of 10 people,” he says.
Among the great orators of history “there are almost no examples of anyone who wasn’t afraid,” Berkun adds. Even Thomas Jefferson had someone else deliver his State of the Union address.
That’s because glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, is baked right into the experience of being human, starting with our earliest ancestors. Thousands upon thousands of years ago, if you were standing alone, exposed, with several sets of strange eyes staring at you, it was probably because you’d just waded waist-deep into danger. Your amygdala — the part of the brain that regulates fear — would kick into fight-or-flight mode, flooding your body with adrenaline.
That response is still ingrained deep in our psyches, even though having all eyes on you no longer presents the threat it once did. “Just because now I’m in a conference room, wearing a tie, the amygdala doesn’t care,” Berkun says. Rationally, you know that the crowd you’re presenting to won’t turn into a violent mob. But try telling that to your racing heart and sweaty palms.
Still, while you can’t change what your mind has evolved to fear, it is possible to control that fear response a little bit better. There’s not much scientific evidence to support cracking a cheesy joke to break the ice (please don’t do that), but there are a few tried-and-true strategies you can use to keep your stage fright from getting the best of you.