Monday, December 1, 2014

The Fear of Speaking

It’s true, words do mean more than their dictionary definition and so it is with the phrase “the Fear of Speaking.” It’s a familiar, socially acceptable, and convenient phrase to explain away one’s reluctance to engage in Public Speaking. And it’s that very common use and acceptance that does more to produce less from a majority of citizens by discouraging civil participation in public conversations. Conversations that might be important, even crucial, to their well-being.

The statistics generated by a Google search indicate that about 75% of people polled say their #1 fear is “The Fear of Speaking.” That statistic varies by Poll, but when I first became aware of a “Fear of Speaking” statistic in 2009, it was reported at about 45-50% in a similar search. Now, whether the polling is more accurate or people are becoming more fearful doesn’t alter the fact that the challenges we and our planet face are increasing in number, complexity, and cost.

Well, what about devising solutions to all these challenges? Complex challenges almost always require complex solutions, often enabled by collaboration of pieces of information. More people, more input. More input, more opportunities to find a solution. This is another situation where less isn’t always more. Let’s digress...

Take a crossword puzzle for example. If the puzzle was designed using all 26 letters, but I was only given 8 letters to choose from, my chance of a successful solution is in doubt. Although I might not require all 26 letters to complete the puzzle, every additional letter provided improves my chances. Based on my experience with crossword puzzles, my skill with words, and a little luck, I might solve it with less than 26 letters. But when it comes to solutions, almost always, more input is better.

At this time of human and planetary evolution, when we sorely need substantial thoughtful, creative, experienced input to arrive at effective solutions, we’re not getting it. We don’t get the input of half-to-three-quarters of our population. What we do have is Delegation not Participation. Commenting with the click of a mouse is an action, but not to be confused with standing-up and saying “I have an idea.” It’s less embarrassing, or so it seems, to say to yourself and to others “I can’t speak in public, I have a fear-of-speaking, it’s called Glossophobia.”

Well, my experience teaching & coaching Public Speaking group workshops and private clients, indicates that most people don’t suffer with clinical Glossophobia. Nor do they suffer with Communication Apprehension.

When confronted with Speaking, anyone may experience anxiety, nerves, sweats, nausea, dry mouth, stage fright, insecurity, or a desire to be, at that moment, somewhere else. But…

On the other hand, these same people don’t experience an intense, unreasonable fear of leaving their homes and mixing with people in a public place. They don’t fear the possibility of talking in public to a store clerk, an Agent at an airline ticket counter, or the waitperson at a restaurant. Most people frequently talk in public to their family, friends, co-workers, fellow travelers and dozens more known and occasionally unknown people. It’s the stuff of life.

Of course, speaking anxiety can present itself when there’s a requirement or expectation to speak to a Group, any group: a class, meeting, seminar, social dinner or professional event. Many people will go to great lengths to avoid even the possibility of addressing a group. With a knee-jerk response they’ll say “I can’t speak to a group!”, “I’m not a good speaker.”, “Oh, I couldn’t do that!”, or any other statement that essentially says “I have a Fear of Speaking.” And if statistics are correct, most of the people you ask will nod in agreement.

If you do a web search right now for the phrase “Fear of Speaking”, you’ll get a return of approximately 126,000,000 responses. Amongst those returns are countless Speaking Trainers, Coaches, & organizations that have a solution for your “Fear of Speaking.” That phrase has become a ubiquitous flag to get your attention. And surely this marketing strategy must work because almost every Speaking organization sells it. It’s a drum-beat of sorts: sell the Fear, the Fear...

I suppose if any phrase is used often enough, people not only accept it, eventually they embrace it. Unfortunately the embrace of the phrase “The Fear of Speaking” has become a death-grip. It strangles initiative and risk-taking. The phrase has become more than it’s words, more than an indicator of social anxiety, more than a simple excuse. It has become a justification for non-participation in public conversations that might be important, decisive, even critical to a persons well-being, and by association, to the well-being of the rest of us.

I think it’s long overdue to recognize the phrase “The Fear of Speaking” for what it is and what it isn’t.

The phrase “The Fear of Speaking” is freely and commonly used interchangeably with “Glossophobia” or “Communication Apprehension” both of which produce an extreme or irrational fear of Speaking in Public, even of being out in Public places. Well, the good news is, neither are the same thing as “The Fear of Speaking” as it’s typically used which is as an explanation for avoiding speaking at public events.

I have met many people who avoided Public Speaking or speaking at public events which actually is not the same thing as Glossophobia.

Avoidance is a more accurate statement of fact for most people. Unfortunately, the connection between “The Fear of Speaking” and Glossophobia has become ubiquitous. And so “Fear of Speaking” is typically offered-up as an acceptable reason to avoid speaking in public events.

Compare these two:

“I’m getting help to control my Fear of Speaking, my Glossophobia.” 
-“Really? Wow!“

“I’m taking a workshop to learn public speaking skills.”
-“That’s nice.”

“The Fear of Speaking” has evolved, acceptably, to incorporate not only the phobia, but as a reason to not participate in public conversations. The real fear is not “The Fear of Speaking” in public, it’s the fear of embarrassment when speaking in public... and they are not the same thing.

A fear of embarrassment can arise from any number of reasons. In most instances, I believe the person knows where the fear stems from even if they say they don’t. In actuality there’s no reason to tell your Speaking Teacher you are embarrassed by this or that, but some people do. And I confess that most of the reasons offered up to me are remarkably unexceptional, and can be managed.

As a result of those revelations, it was apparent that in a supportive, safe, learning environment, most students & clients could learn to manage, overcome, even eliminate their fear of embarrassment through the acquisition of Speaking skills.

“The Fear of Speaking” is not as daunting as it has been made out to be. It’s inflated, exaggerated, overblown, and it should be excised from general use. It’s an inappropriate barrier to hide behind. It’s a toxic misrepresentation of the anxiety that most people feel. “The Fear of Speaking” doesn’t serve the individual nor the rest of us. In fact it deprives us of greater participation, narrow views, unique solutions, re-drawn maps, thoughtful opinions. When it comes to solutions, more input generally produces better results.

It all comes down to this: if you want to participate not delegate, and you have an aversion to speaking in public, help is available. A local community college class, a Speaking Coach, or a group like Toastmasters, can help you overcome your resistance. It’s not difficult to accomplish and the result can be a life-changing experience for you. Speaking skills are learnable. Challenges proliferate.

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