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Overcoming America’s #1 Fear

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Jerry Seinfeld once said that since public speaking is America’s number one fear, if invited to a funeral, most Americans would rather be in the coffin than standing at the pulpit delivering the eulogy.  I hope it’s not that bad for you but my experience is that even if it’s not fear, your internal reaction to the prospect of a critical communication probably made you think “there has to be an easier way.”  There is no magic formula, but there are some powerful choices you can make in any communication that will help you feel more comfortable and in control.

In this entry I will share some ideas on what is actually happening inside of you and why, and next time I will share some powerful ideas for what you can do about it.


Or why your body says GET ME OUT OF HERE!!

Take a few minutes to remember how you have responded, physically and emotionally, to a situation in which you were under extreme pressure.  Ever been in a fight?  Started an important sports competition?  Made a pitch that would lock in your bonus or get you closer to that promotion?  How did your body respond?  As a coach and a performer I have witnessed everything from sweaty palms and butterflies in the stomach, to nausea and being at a complete loss of words.  I am not trying to frighten you.  I am only suggesting that whatever you feel is OK.  You name it, I have seen it or heard of it and it does not mean you are falling apart or that you are bound to fail.  It means that your central nervous system is colluding with your adrenal glands to get you ready.  Ready (in cave man days) for a life or death threat.  Anthropologists and psychologists call it Fight Or Flight because your body is getting ready to either fight like hell or run for like crazy for the hills.  Unfortunately, punching your client or running from the platform will probably not help you get that promotion.

Let’s say you are giving a speech.  If you’re like most people, most of your time and energy go into thinking and outlining your talk.  For the most part you are comfortably in your head because you’re good at…


Up to a certain point in most careers, business people get rewarded and reinforced more for the quality of their ideas than for their ability to use ideas to create influence. Problem solving, accuracy, timeliness and volume tend to define effectiveness early in most careers.   But, if you are fortunate enough to make it to a position of real leadership, you will probably discover that pure quality and operational effectiveness don’t inspire others to follow. You have to be able to influence. And, for most folks in the business world, this is not a core competency and it isn’t taught in most business schools. As a result, when you are thinking about what to say, you are calm, cool and comfortable because you are doing what you are used to doing. But when it’s your turn to talk, you don’t feel so calm, cool and comfortable. Why? Because you have been trained to think, not to connect. And, often times, “presentations” are highly charged, high value, high visibility communication situations. No wonder your palms sweat! But why does your body respond to these situations as if you are under attack? Because your body thinks it is!  In fact, any demanding situation that is beyond your comfort zone creates an adaptive, physical response. Suddenly you aren’t thinking. Your body is responding to perceived…


The demands of many communication situations are interpreted by your body as a physical threat. What kind of threats am I talking about?

  • Intellectual threats: ” I hope I remember what I had planned to say”. “I hope the data is all correct”
  • Emotional threats: “I hope they like me”. “I hope I am as good as the other speakers”. “I hope I win!”
  • Environmental threats: “Wow! There are more people here than I thought. The room looks different when I am standing up. Damn, the boss is here. Oh, great, they are taping this!”

These and other perceived “threats” cause an adaptive physical response. What do I mean by “adaptive”? Well, believe it or not, your physical response to these perceived threats is the same response of your parasympathetic nervous system to real physical threats and has helped us survive as a species. So your digestive system shuts down and prepares to “void” so you can run faster and further (butterflies in your stomach, cotton mouth). Your blood rushes to the peripheral muscles (and out of the brain) to activate arms and legs for running and fighting. Sweaty palms are a result of increased “galvanic skin response” which is another unfortunate symptom of the same “peripheral circulatory dilation”. Knees shake in preparation to run, etc.  Unfortunately, the human body is not great at discerning real from perceived threats. And, as soon as your body perceives a threat (even when your thinking brain does not) your body reacts with a release of hormones, including adrenaline, that prepare you to run screaming for the hills, or grab a rock or a sharp stick and fight to the death. Of course, neither will help you close the deal.

If all of that weren’t bothersome enough, left unchecked our natural and adaptive response to these perceived threats feeds on itself. How? As soon as we become aware that our bodies are responding (Wow, my mouth is dry, my knees are shaking and my hands are wet! Where did that come from? My body is our of control!) most of us fight against our body’s natural responses. You can almost see some presenters trying to gain…


…by clenching their hands and jaws, or walking around randomly, or speaking very quickly, or softly or loudly, or refusing to look up from their computer as they read their slides. And, the more you fight against your natural response, the more “out of control” you feel. And since business leaders don’t like being out of control, they fight for control, which itself becomes another demand, which (as we now know) the body interprets as a threat which causes more “juice”, which causes more adrenaline, which makes us feel more out of control… right into that swirling vortex of terror, dead air, and a compelling desire to move to a desert island. Interestingly, before you start a sporting event, or a theater performance, etc., the second the whistle blows (gun goes off, curtain comes up) you get to put all of that “juice” (adrenaline, et al) to work physically, which is what your body wants to do. So, you run, jump, hit, swing, sing, project, etc., all of which are physical, and use up the juice in a way that can actually help you to perform better (of course too much juice can hurt athletic performance as well but that’s another story).

At least partly as a result of this cycle (demand, response, react, etc.) we see lots of successful business leaders present in a very careful, subdued, and generally uninspiring way. I think unconsciously, many leaders arrive at the conclusion that seeming bland is better than seeming nervous. And without conscious choice, they develop habits that help them feel more in control. The problem is that what feels to them often seems bland to us. And, bland doesn’t connect or move others to action, which is what leadership communication is all about.