When I tell people that I’m afraid of public speaking, my words are typically misinterpreted. I receive well-intentioned advice on breathing techniques and other meditation tricks. Worse, I get reassurance that I’m a really good public speaker
Delivering has never been a source of worry for me. Give me a stage and an audience, I will keep them entertained. No, the fear goes deeper.
From as long as I can remember – from our very first oral presentation at school – I was afraid, because I took public speaking seriously. Our teachers would tell us to address the class live, not read from a text. I was one of the few – if not the only one – to follow that advice, always. And I could observe the difference, in how much attention I attracted, by presenting something part-improvised on the spot.
It continues to this day: whether conferences, programs or special events, I rely on a few notes at most. Here is my theory: humans are predators. We sense fear. We smell blood. We look. If you walk on a stage without a text memorized – without an armour of pre-digested words – but alive and vulnerable – then all eyes will be on you. People will give you their attention. If you play it well, then you have a chance to be heard, and impactful. A polished discourse, by contrast, is only make believe.
So, yes, the fear comes from taking a risk – the fear of bombing, ridicule, embarrassment, and status loss, which I expose myself to by insisting on a measure of ‘aliveness’.
More precisely, the fear is of seeming deranged, and the rejection that would follow. This is the downside of genuinely wanting attention, so that I get a shot at stretching perceptions, and rewiring the brains of your audience.
To do this meaningfully, the trick is to focus not on delivery, but content. What you say, not how you say it. And here, I believe, is where the core of the fear lies. The same fear shadows my editorial work. It stems from taking language seriously.
The Chinese tradition distinguishes the feelings of fear and worry.
Worry, associated to the element Earth, is what you feel when you place a seed in the ground, and wait for it to grow. It is what you feel when your child is at school, your husband abroad, or whenever things must happen that are beyond your control.
Fear is associated with Water. It is about excess and brutal danger. It is a flooding river suddenly breaking the dyke, and wiping off in a moment the work of centuries. It is a release of tension, forces greater than the human unleashing over us. It is visions of horror.
Language holds humanity together. It is the medium that holds our social worlds, by shaping the stories and beliefs that guide our day to day decisions. Mess with it too much, and who knows what chaos will ensure. Revolutions all started with a speech.
We’re at a crossroads of history. We must urgently shift our paradigm, develop new myths and beliefs to guide our day to day decisions. We must work on minds and hearts. Language is an ideal tool to that end. But not an entirely safe one.
My work, as a writer, speaker or editor, is to rewire brains: separate concepts and ideas, bring others together, associating them with new emotions, to build new pathways connecting different planes of reality. And as I try to do that, I fear that, unwittingly, I might create a rip in the fabric of our common world, disturb old forces, and unleash a demon.