I moved to a new country to avoid a presentation
Not me personally but I know someone who did. She may have exaggerated a little but the fact is she was terrified about public speaking. She took steps to overcome her fear (phobia) by joining Toastmasters but when it came down to doing her final presentation she … well packed her bags and left.
It’s often said that public speaking is feared more than death. Hard to believe but apparently it can be that bad for some. So you could say they have a phobia. (Or a fear on steroids.)
The phobias we often hear people talk about include spiders, snakes, heights, public speaking of course, flying, confined spaces, and crowds. I’m sure you’ve heard of others. But how do they come about? It’s fair to say that you’re not born with a phobia. How would that be possible given you’ve not yet experienced anything? So if we’re not born with it, it means we’ve created it (somehow).
Some of these fears start by one not-so-nice experience. Let’s go back to our public speaking example. I’ll share my own personal “not-so-nice” public speaking experience. I was in my 20’s working for a legal publishing company. I was in “sales” and was asked to give a presentation to a room full of lawyers about our new software. There were thousands of them in the room. Okay, perhaps not thousands, but probably 100-150. It was a sea of dark suits and red ties. I had on a green suit and it was the 80’s so my suit had velcro shoulder pads that were large enough for a whole family to comfortably sleep on. I was on stage, a raised stage, with a microphone, and lighting good enough for Justin Bieber. I’d done this before so it wasn’t completely unfamiliar. And then it happened. One of my shoulder pads dislodged itself and fell onto the stage in front of me, and in front of the 150 suits. All eyes went from me to the gargantuan shoulder pad. I wasn’t sure whether to ignore it, pick it up, or kick it off the stage. Kicking it off the stage would’ve certainly killed someone in the front row.
Two possible outcomes:
It would be reasonable to think that a person who experienced this would be scarred for life and refuse future speaking opportunities point blank.
There would also be individuals who experienced this, would laugh it off, and be on the stage next week without a second thought.
Two very similar experiences, yet two very different outcomes.
So what actually happened in the first outcome where a phobia of public speaking developed? It goes like this.
1. Bad public speaking experience. 2. Person feels very embarrassed. 3. Presentation finishes without further issues. 4. Person continues to repeat the scenario in their mind over and over again, each time building up more and more anxiety, fear, and helplessness. 5. Each time they are faced with the possibility of having to stand up in front of a group of people to speak, they recreate the scenario again, creating a very strong association between public speaking and anxiety and sheer terror. The slightly embarrassing experience has gone from a “one off” to an enormously terrifying ordeal that brings about such a reaction that leaving the country to escape it, even at the thought of it, is a serious possibility.
That “one off” slightly embarrassing experience has been and gone. It no longer exists …. other than in the person’s imagination. And if the individual went through their mental logbook of experiences to find evidence of other public speaking engagements that went really well, when audience members had come up to them to say how much they enjoyed their presentation, there would be dozens of them. More than dozens. But they’re not paying attention to those are they? They are only giving their attention to that one experience that was slightly embarrassing.
Fear and anxiety following such an experience is not coming from the event itself, it is coming from the person’s thinking. The person is now creating the anxiety and terror, not the presentation (or the dark suits or the stage). Here’s the thing. The event itself, whatever it is, is not something that is happening to the person. It is the anxiety and feelings they are creating. If they weren’t having those anxious and terrifying thoughts about public speaking, they wouldn’t be feeling anxiety and terror.
The event itself, whatever it is, is not something that is happening to the person. It is the anxiety and feelings they are creating.
So what about the person who goes through that same slightly embarrassing shoulder pad experience but doesn’t develop a phobia about public speaking. It goes like this:
1. Bad public speaking experience. 2. Person feels very embarrassed. 3. Presentation finishes without further issues. 4. Person is relieved it’s over and puts it behind them as a one-off. They don’t start thinking that all future speaking engagements will be the same. They even have a bit of a laugh about it. They know they’ve done lots of other presentations that have gone well. 5. End of story.
This example demonstrates how something unpleasant at the time can turn into a full blown fear on steroids.
The good news is you can learn how to take back control of your unhelpful thinking and develop belief systems that will have you back on the stage with confidence. And by the way, I didn’t leave a country to avoid public speaking after my shoulder pad incident. Just to be clear.