Fight or Flight? Or Freeze?

Fresh from running a Conference Speaker Master Class, Turfcare Sector Trainer and Presenter Frank Newberry turns his attention to a fear that many of us have in life – the fear of public speaking. He offers three quick and easy ways to minimise the fears that are strongest in the final hour before we make a speech or presentation. This final hour is when we are most likely to fight or flee or freeze!


Over the years, it has become evident to me that the one skill-set that is disproportionately valued by others (including employers) is the ability and confidence to speak in public. Yet, I was reminded of how worrying public speaking can be in the last edition of this magazine when one of Paul Brett MG’s ‘Getting Personal’ questionnaire responses caught my eye (see page 40 of Pitchcare issue 101).

Paul said that public speaking scared him. Maybe it is because it takes courage to speak in public that people are duly impressed when we can remain calm and coherent under the fearful pressure of talking to an audience.

I took a look at some recent research which revealed that Paul is not alone – the fear of public speaking is considered the number one fear in many modern societies. More people spontaneously cite public speaking when asked what they are scared of – and even when asked to pick from a comprehensive list of fears and phobias – public speaking is the number one choice (see table below):

Number One Fear

  1. Public Speaking or Stage Fright – 19% of people
  2. Death and End of Life – 16%
  3. Spiders and other Arachnids – 13%
  4. Darkness and Twilight – 12%
  5. Heights, Altitudes, and Elevations – 11%
  6. People and Social Situations – 10%
  7. Flying in Aeroplanes – 7%
  8. Open Spaces and Squares – 5%
  9. Thunder and Lightning – 4%
  10. Confined Spaces and Small Rooms – 3%Some people would rather die

Apparently, seventy-nine percent of people place public speaking somewhere in their top ten fears with nineteen percent placing it at number one. You might even suppose – from the previous table – that some people would rather die (about one in five) than have to speak in public!

Let me pause here to ask which of the listed fears you suffer from? Which is your number one fear?

Having asked that question I must say that a lot of the items on this fears list I really like. Maybe you too enjoy ‘people and social situations’, ‘flying in aeroplanes’, ‘open spaces’, ‘thunder and lightning’. ‘Darkness and twilight’ surely these are not too bad? Especially sunsets and, speaking for myself, my nervous system has got used to me standing up and speaking in public. Many people, including me, can testify that the more you do it – the easier it gets.

Rational versus Irrational Fears

Dr Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), known to many as the ‘father of psychoanalysis’ worked with people who had irrational fears. It is normal and rational to have fears when we feel threatened. We all have fears but some of us are gripped by the more powerful anxieties that Freud called irrational fears. I understand that the three fears most likely to be irrational (more scary than they need to be) are:

1. Fear of Rejection

If I mess up a talk some people might reject me, not like me as much, or at least think less of me. Not so much a problem with people who hardly know me but what about my boss or others I want to impress in the audience?

2. Fear of Failure

If I mess up a talk – I will have failed at something I thought I could do, something others thought I could do. I will have failed, and failure is so deflating when it happens. My self-confidence could also be affected for a long time after the episode.

3. Fear of Exposure

If I mess up a talk – I might be found out and exposed as a fraud. I may well suffer extreme embarrassment and even humiliation. Nowadays, this can be exposure of a very public kind. People might record my talk on a smartphone and publish it on social media for all to see.

Oh dear, public speaking seems to combine Freud’s three biggest irrational fears!

So what quick and easy steps can we take to minimise our fears? I have three things that I like to do to reduce my stress when I have to give a talk for the first time, perhaps to a new client or a new audience, i.e. people who do not know me.

Eye-Brain Control

All three tips come under the heading of Eye-Brain Control. This is part of the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ phenomena, well known in human and animal behaviour, i.e. when we see something scary, unusual or dangerous we either face it head on (we ‘fight’) – or we run away from it (we ‘flee’) or we freeze in terror! We become literally speechless!

This reaction could be caused by anything – from seeing a vicious animal running towards us or seeing an audience with high expectations staring at us. Our brain quickly computes that there is danger present and gives us the option to either fight or flee.

Maybe we have evolved to this state over millennia and perhaps we have survived as a species because of it. Our eyes just take over or control our brains for a split-second. Just long enough to sew a seed of doubt in our minds.

There will also be a physiological reaction. People talk of having ‘butterflies in the stomach’. The adrenal gland starts to release cortisol in order to reduce the stress that this relatively unusual activity is causing.

Our bodies might now be on full alert, saying to our brains that we should leave these unfamiliar surroundings our eyes are seeing. Maybe we can go somewhere more familiar and less threatening to the eye? Our eyes, after all, are just doing their job and telling our brains that we are in danger.

Three quick and easy ways to minimise the fears

Here then are three quick and easy ways to minimise the fears that are strongest in the final hour before we make a speech or presentation.

1. Get to the venue early

Particularly if the venue is new to you – and to your eyes. I like to be at the venue one hour early to set up my laptop, projector and screen. Even if I am using the venue’s audio visual equipment, I still arrive early to ensure that everything is working perfectly.

I check if the screen can be seen from all angles, where the loos are, where the emergency exit route and assembly point are, etc. I go through my presentation one last time. Ensuring that all of my slides are appearing on the screen as I intended them to (transitions, animations and embedded videos).

2. Greet people when they arrive

There will be a number of people arriving early, including the organiser (and the people the organiser is giving a lift to on the day). Greeting people will distract you from the butterflies in your stomach. Greet them with a big smile; show you are happy to be there. Bring joy into the room with you. If you look worried it will worry other people.

Pre-Covid, I attended a two-day conference at which the main speaker went round greeting everyone and shaking everyone’s hand. That would have been about a hundred handshakes on day one. He did the same on day two, and even remembered my wife’s name from the day before!

3. While others speak before you

Sit on the stand, if there is one, and face the audience so that your eyes get used to people looking in your direction. If your eyes meet an audience member’s eyes, just give a little smile and nod slightly – doing this indicates that you are relaxed and happy to be in the room.

Listen intently to the previous speakers and identify something they say that you agree with, make a note of it and use it at some point in your talk. In your introduction, thank any previous speakers for their remarks. These actions will keep your mind busy and stop you from ‘freezing’. You will have something positive to do as your excitement and anxiety builds just before your talk begins.

You will win admirers in your audience

Three quick and easy things then; three steps that you can take in the final hour before you give a speech or presentation. If you can give a talk willingly and with a smile, you will win admirers in your audience. Good luck with your next/first ever talk. Just beware though; doing well could earn you even more invitations to speak!

Frank Newberry has been helping people in the turfcare sector to get better results for over thirty years. His clients include the ATP Ireland, BIGGA, the GMA and Sampson Training Solutions. If you are new to public speaking or if you are an old hand looking to take your performance to the next level with a Speaker Masterclass just contact Frank by e-mail or by telephone via the contact tab of his personal website which is at www.franknewberry.com .

© 2022 Frank Newberry

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