Glossophobia is the technical term for a fear of public speaking. The word comes from the Greek for tongue – glossa – and for dread – phobos. It’s also a bit of a tongue-twister itself, as a word – which is pretty appropriate when you think about it!
I bundle the common symptoms of stage fright together, into a syndrome I call “Presenteritis”. No doctor will be able to diagnose the syndrome … but trust me, it’s real! The stress of glossophobia really puts the body through the wringer. The symptoms of Presenteritis are trembling muscles, a squeaky voice, cold feet, a rapid heartbeat and sweating.
All of these are caused by the “fight or flight” response your body undergoes during times of stress. Our caveman ancestors would have experienced Presenteritis as a useful set of bodily responses when they came across a sabretooth tiger in the wild – and today we experience the podium like a predator! Those trembling muscles are really your body preparing to run away quickly, with a sudden burst of energy. Your blood starts to focus on rushing to your muscles, increasing your body heat – hence the sweating – and leaving your feet cold.
Many speakers experience this, and many overcome it. It’s also true that even some of the most successful people in the arts – Hugh Grant, for example – have experienced stage-fright. This should give hope to all of us!
The problem with glossophobia is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I use the phrase Presenteritis because we experience it as an illness. No one wants to be sick, and so we come to fear speaking even more. This is what I meant by “can’t speak, won’t speak”: Presenteritis makes speaking more difficult, and in trying to avoid it many opt simply to stay silent.
It’s is a vicious circle, but it can be broken. All you need to do is learn the simple techniques that can interrupt the synaptic pathways of your brain along which Presenteritis travels. That is, if you can break the mental link between your fear of speaking – and its physical manifestations, then you can overcome both. It’s actually pretty easy, if you consult an expert.
You really can convince yourself there’s nothing to fear – and become a better speaker as a result. Fear can be irrational, it’s true. Hugh Grant cites his stagefright as an explanation for his early retirement. Being one of the most successful actors in the world obviously didn’t allay his fears entirely.
Crucially, though, Grant didn’t let his Presenteritis stop him becoming successful in the first place. Glossing over glossophobia is possible. All you need do is learn a few simple tricks to reprogramme your mind. The more you speak, the more confident you will be – and the less tense the prospect of speaking will make you. This will in turn reduce that rapid heartbeat – and warm up those cold feet!