In New York right now, the streets are covered with long, ropey chains of ragweed pollen. Eyes are running. Lungs are tightening. Sinuses are throbbing. It’s “hay fever” season.
Hay fever is another name for ragweed allergy. And like most other allergies, it’s the result of a big miscommunication between your immune system and reality.
Your Basic Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
In general, allergic reactions are triggered by things that aren’t really dangerous. Things like peanuts. Pollen. Wool. Dust mites.
Billions of people eat, breathe, or wear these substances with no trouble. So where does the allergy problem come in?
It comes in when, for some unknown reason, your immune system decides these things are dangerous, and goes into full-out battle mode. It sends out armies of white blood cells, floods your sinuses and lungs with mucus, raises your heart rate, kicks up adrenalin. This violent assault on an imagined invader is what actually makes you sick.
(In William Gibson’s great novel Pattern Recognition, the heroine is allergic to brand logos; but that’s another story!)
Fear of Public Speaking is the Same
There are times when, and places where facing a bunch of strangers can be very, very dangerous. But these are generally not public speaking situations.
I’ve coached literally hundreds of people, and while they haven’t all adored their time at the podium, none of them have been torn apart by a rabid, drooling wolf-pack of vicious audience members.
In fact, the vast majority of audiences are on your side. While they may not agree with everything you say, they want you to succeed as a speaker because that makes things much easier for them!
Try telling that to your amygdala, though! Your amygdala is the pre-verbal part of your brain that mediates fear; and like your immune system, while it’s there to protect you, it can make mistakes and over-react to situations that are actually non-threatening.
The Eyes Have It
While it may not always feel this way, the reality is that your audience is no more dangerous to you than… ragweed pollen!
This is why it’s so important to make eye contact with your audience! If you really look at the people you’re speaking to, and let yourself observe where they’re coming from, you’ll see things that disprove the “I’m in mortal danger!” theory. You’ll see people smiling. Listening carefully. Perhaps even nodding their heads.
And while fear of public speaking is nothing to sneeze at, I’m betting that even a brief reality check will calm you down by reminding you that your audience is on your side!