Public Speaking and Panic

After an email recently it occurred to me just how lucky I am. I’m one of the Guests of Honour at Conclave 2, the National SF Convention in Auckland over Anzac weekend. And as such I’ll be doing a seminar or two, the odd talk, and I could be grabbed for a panel if someone’s needed in a hurry. And that’s where the luck comes in. That doing this sort of thing doesn’t bother me at all. I know writers for whom this produces panic at the very idea, let alone actually standing up before anywhere from 20-200 people and talking. They go hot, cold, feel faint, they sweat, go clammy, and feel nauseous. I have none of that and I’m deeply grateful for it. But the odd thing is that apparently this fear of public speaking is based on a ‘prey response.’ I had that mentioned to me only recently and was surprised so I looked it up and while studies are interesting, I’m not entirely sure that this fear has much to do with prey response.

I note that in some of the studies/articles on this, it is said that public speaking is something that must be learned, and that a speaker needs to learn not to react with a prey response. Nonsense. I’ve been able to speak in and to the public since I was as young as 6-7 when I performed at church socials. I think that the ability to do this may be inborn in some, but may need to be learned for others, but that you cannot truthfully say it must be learned by everyone, only by some. Apparently the sight of all those faces looking back, for some people triggers the prey feeling that a predator is fixing on them, and that, or even the memory of it having happened on a previous occasion, can now produce prey-response. Myself I think that it is more likely that it takes a previous unpleasant or unhappy experience of public speaking to produce that, and if such an event never occurs, you’ll have always spoken happily in public. I also believe that if that negative memory is replaced by one that IS pleasant, then the person will continue happily with public speaking thereafter.

And therein lies the difference between scientific studies and the layperson’s experiences. They have studied the response and come to a conclusion that the response is instinctual and must be trained out of everyone. I know that it never applied to me, I was never trained out of something that didn’t exist for me, and I know that on a number of occasions over my life I have convinced friends with that problem to speak in public under circumstances that have provided a pleasant and amusing outcome. They are now fine with public speaking. Why weren’t they before? Because they had an earlier specific unpleasant experience and were afraid of it occurring again. This isn’t an instinctual prey-response, it’s one that was learned and can be unlearned. It’s this sort of thing that now and again makes me wonder about scientific studies. Or is it just that I and those others who have never minded public speaking – lack a prey-response? Any scientists out there with a good answer?

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