More Brain Science to the Rescue

I once worked with two change management experts who spent several years on the speaking circuit together. They were always more impressive when they presented as a team.  We’ll call them Luvit and Dreadit since that is an accurate description of their respective inclinations toward public speaking.  Every time a presentation loomed on the calendar, Dreadit would ask Luvit to carve out a few hours to prepare. And every time, Luvit told Dreadit not to worry, they’d be great.

When I finally inquired about this dynamic, Luvit said that he preferred to be extemporaneous and in the moment. And to his credit, he is adept at impromptu speaking – one of the best I’ve ever seen. Dreadit said that unless she thoroughly prepared, she was a complete wreck and invariably, her fear would win out and she would agonize through her delivery. She would then go home vowing never to speak in public again.  She is otherwise an intelligent, articulate and talented person.

These two individuals fall on opposite ends of my public speaking continuum. Before I continue, try plotting yourself on the line.

If you placed yourself on the left side of the spectrum, then read on. There are legitimate, scientific reasons for the sweaty palms and dry mouth. And it’s not that we are not good enough, smart enough, or goshdarnit, people don’t like us.

Continuing with our “Public Speaking and the Brain” series, this post focuses on yet another finding that explains our fear of public speaking.  First, some nerdy brain science.  We know that the amygdala is in charge of our emotional reactions. When we are overwhelmed, the amygdala decides to put up a Jersey Barrier to our rational brain. If you’ve ever seen Serena Williams’s outburst at the U.S. Open (what Daniel Goleman calls the Amygdala Hijack), you know what negative emotions can do to an otherwise capable human being.

Brain researchers at Stanford University found that the amygdala is not well connected to the region of the brain responsible for determining the importance of stimuli. “This could mean that people have a harder time discerning truly worrisome situations from mild annoyances. People who suffer from general anxiety disorder feel overwhelmed by emotion and don’t believe they can feel sad or upset without coming completely undone. So, in an attempt to avoid facing their unpleasant feelings, they distract themselves by fretting.”1 This description sums up my former colleague who worked herself into a tizzy before every presentation.

So who has the better strategy: A.) Luvit, with no preparation or B.) Dreadit, with overkill preparation?  For most presenters, the answer is B, because very few of us have earned black belt ranking in extemporaneous speaking. But the answer could also be: whatever works in service of building your confidence.

Which brings us back to SpeakWell’s favorite piece of advice:  find a trustworthy friend or respected colleague and get feedback.  As Ken Blanchard is famous for saying, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.”

– Barbara



  1. Stanford University Medical Center (2009, December 7). ScienceDaily.