Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What is The Number One Fear?

Based on some surveys, the top-ranked fear of modern humans is the fear of public speaking--even greater than the fear of dying.

Most of us probably have horror stories. This is what happened to me during my Ph.D. defense seminar. My advisor introduced me, I stood up and looked out at the audience, and I completely blanked on my opening statement. There was an uncomfortable pause. Just as I saw a few people beginning to look worried, I remembered what I wanted to say. Note that I did not feel unusually nervous beforehand; in fact, I was pretty confident when I stood up. So it was quite a shock to just blank out like that—at the worst possible moment. Fortunately, I did not panic; I finally glanced at my slide, which jogged my memory, and once I started speaking everything went smoothly. I managed to sound confident and authoritative throughout the talk. I also paused at various points in my talk (pretending to think about my next statement) so that my initial hesitation seemed to be part of my “style”.

If the above story about blanking out makes you cringe, you probably suffer from some level of performance anxiety (aka “stage fright”). My impression is that women tend to be more susceptible than men. Some men clearly love to get in front of an audience and never have the slightest twinge of nerves (although I can think of some exceptions). But I think most people experience this fear to some extent at some point in their career. Some overcome it eventually; others never do.

If you have this problem, you likely feel the need for crutches to get through a talk. The ultimate crutch is having the entire text of your speech in front of you. Having the text at hand is insurance against stumbling through a complicated explanation or even completely blanking out, as I did. It also allows you to avoid eye contact with the audience and puts you behind a podium, a barrier between you and your audience. For someone with performance anxiety, avoiding the audience is the whole point of these behaviors. However, one of the goals of a good speaker should be to connect with the audience and make them (not you) feel at ease. Speakers should make frequent eye contact with the audience and come out from behind the podium (if possible).

In some fields, it is standard practice to read entire papers--complete with footnotes—at conferences (e.g., in the field of law). But for most scientists, it is performance anxiety that underlies the decision to read. I once had a post-doc who insisted on reading her talks—that she could not remember what to say because of nerves. After much coaching and encouragement, she was finally convinced to give a talk without notes. She did extremely well and was ecstatic at the reaction she got from the audience.

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