Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

Fear public speaking? Blame your brain not your Mum

Bering In Mind  is always a ripper read  by psychologist Jesse Bering, in Scientific American.  A while ago he  wrote about the fear of public speaking in a column that touched a nerve, and echoed my own  experience.

Bering describes a study that investigated the evolutionary aspects of  fear of public speaking. Basically, it seems that just being the centre of  social attention produces anxiety, and once you’re anxious, if you see angry faces in the audience, it  makes it worse.

A lot of my  work is with adolescents. And their parents. When a teen is delivering a speech and their parent is in the audience, it’s almost impossible for the parent not to be ‘making’ the speech too. Things go one of three ways.

The best case is when parents nod gently, smile, and look rapt, regardless of how the speech is going. Their son or daughter feels warm, supportive, unconditional love. Scenario  2  is when fear of disappointing the parent (justified or not) compounds the stress the teen is feeling.  Natural performance anxiety turns into terrible pressure. Sometimes the teen is overwhelmed and suffers stage fright. (And not just teens by the way. A few years ago I put myself into a public speaking competition, as a reminder of how it feels. My elderly mother came to watch. I felt the pressure).

Then there’s Scenario 3, parent-child-crossed-wires.  Here the parent is like the one in the first situation – engrossed, interested and engaged,  but the teen feels pressured and criticised as if it were the second case. “What are you talking about?” dumfounded Dad asks enraged teen afterwards.  “Your face!”  is the furious reply.  The parent is transmitting ‘interested engagement’  but the child is receiving ‘scowly disapproval’.

A well known study of teens suggests that teens do indeed misread some facial emotions. It’s a maturity thing, because their frontal lobe is insufficiently developed. The study in Bering’s column adds an extra perspective.

“University of Würzburg psychologist Matthias Wieser  … told [some] subjects that, shortly, they would be preparing and delivering a two-minute videotaped speech about  a controversial issue and that their speaking performance would be evaluated by three experts in terms of appearance, speech content, vocalization, demonstrated confidence, and rhetoric skill…

The experimenters attached EEG electrodes …[Subjects were then shown] a series of 96… angry, happy, and neutral faces… flashed randomly on a screen …. As predicted, the brains of those participants who’d been assigned the public speaking ….lit up especially swiftly ….[Control subjects did not] …. The authors therefore reason that the anticipation of public speaking essentially “turned on” the  amygdalas.”

So does the ‘crossed-wires’ scenario arise when the adolescent tendency to misread facial emotions interacts with the normal anxiety response to angry faces?  Is the misunderstanding between the teen speaker and their Mum and Dad just the result of two biological phenomena over which the teenager has no control?

If so it could be a relief.  Plenty of people have stories about something their parents did in an audience long ago which put them off  performing, or competing, or developing a skill.  But maybe the parent was innocent. Maybe the child’s interpretation was mistaken.

I have seen parents stay away from competitions and performances at their kids’ request. “You put me off”.  The obliging parent does it to please the child, but then they miss out something special – watching their offspring develop an accomplishment, and sharing in the experience. It’s hard on  a parent. After all, they are the gene pool.

Maybe now they don’t have to. Next time  your teen is telling you to wait in the car, take courage. Say “No darling. It’s my pleasure to watch you,  and if you see anything but undiluted rapture on my face it’s just  your frontal lobe and your amygdala playing up. I’m coming in”.

This is the first in a series about the fear of public speaking. What’s your experience?


One comment on “Fear public speaking? Blame your brain not your Mum

  1. Cherie

    Hi Claire,
    I can relate to all of the above. Our daughter is a Public Speaker and has won a couple of heats in state wide competitions and advanced to regional finals, all on days that I have waited ‘outside’. I can at least say that I have had the opportunity from a different perspective, in hearing the responses of the other contestants and parents leaving the room, with very positive comments about our daughter’s speech (although they are not aware that I am the mother). Perhaps I too should just ‘come in’ one day , but maybe not just yet as I don’t want to break a good run too soon!
    Keep these articles coming as I think they will benefit others in the same situation.

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