One student literally spoke to the wall. Another bent his head so low it was nearly impossible to see his face behind his notecards. Another looked fixedly at her power-point presentation, never once glancing at her classmates.
During group presentations, students huddle in a corner, or else gather behind the classroom podium, as if they want it to be a shield between them and the rest of the class.
Giving an oral presentation is for many students something so traumatic they would almost, but not quite give up their cellphones in order to avoid it. Some are so averse to speaking in class that even answering a question from the relative safety of their desk is difficult.
Fear of public speaking is not relegated to students. Americans are feeling anxious about many things these days. After all, we have been living in the age of anxiety since English poet W. H. Auden coined the term in 1947. In the years that have passed our sense of dismay has taken some quantum jumps.
Americans are feeling anxious about many things — mass shootings, thermo-nuclear war, government corruption, President Trump, as in “Trump Anxiety Disorder,” a term being heard more and more.
We also have a wide range of phobias — fear of spiders (arachnophobia), fear of snakes (ophidiophobia), and fear of the number 13 (triskaidekaphobia).
But topping the list for 75 percent of Americans is glossophobia — fear of public speaking, outranking even the fear of death. So ingrained is this fear that Jerry Seinfeld once joked, “Speaking in front of a crowd is the No. 1 fear of the average person … No. 2 was death. That means if you have to be at a funeral, you’d rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Why this awful fear of standing up in front of others? Its physical symptoms are akin to panic disorder. People freeze, perspire, tremble, faint or come close to fainting. According to the National Institute of Health, this is the result of fear of being judged, or negatively evaluated by others.
This may go back to our primordial roots. Our most ancient ancestors had to live within a tribal group in order to survive the dangers of the distant past. Rejection from the tribe could mean death. Speaking to an audience puts us in a similar position wherein we could experience that same kind of rejection, bringing these primal fears to the surface.
Also, the spoken word connects with an audience in a deeper, more visceral level than the written word. One has only to think of the Nuremburg rallies, or of Mussolini telling his screaming audience, “An hour marked by destiny is striking the sky of the fatherland!” In 1963 Martin Luther King gave his classic “I Have A Dream Speech,” but that same year George Wallace brought crowds of white southerners to their feet when he called for, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
How can people get over or at least manage this fear of public speaking?
“Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain,” counseled Emerson. While this may be oversimplified, it is in essence what most experts on the subject advise.
Conquering a fear, large or small, is empowering, and can help, as Lincoln said, find “the better angels of our nature.”
Perhaps if this happened we could move from the Age of Anxiety to another Age of Reason. But considering who presently lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, that could be a few years away.