Our fear of public speaking is not simple

There are two main reasons beyond “confidence” that make presentations scary.

Meg Lightheart
Oct 23 · 2 min read

I mean, part of the fear comes from mechanical things — not knowing how to plan, how to make slides, how to tell stories, how to deal with Q&A, even how to “deal” with top-layer “nerves” — but for a while I’ve been sensing something deeper.

I think there’s two things — one sharper, one more insidious.

First, there’s past experiences. Did you have a bad experience at school which made you scared to stand up in front of a group? How did your parents do? Did they encourage you to speak up? Was your voice nurtured?

Those things cut deep. You don’t get over them without some significant effort.

Secondly, even if you left school unscathed and your parents did a good job, there’s society.

Being a person who has any kind of empathy or feeling or vulnerability in a society that values logic and rationality above all else does not set you up to easily speak out.

Dysfunctional corporate culture does not support you sticking your neck out.

Being a Person of Colour in a white supremacist society systematically undermines any deep safety you have about speaking out, that your words and thoughts are valued.

Being a woman or femme in a patriarchal society undermines your sense of safety in speaking out.

Being trans in a deeply transphobic society does not lead to safety in speaking out.

Being any flavour of queer in a heterocentric society undermines your sense of safety in speaking out.

Having a disability in an ableist society undermines your sense of safety in speaking out.

Being non-gender-conforming in a society that polices gender roles as tightly as ours does undermines your sense of safety in speaking out.

Being working class in a society run by and for the rich undermines your feeling that your words are valued.

Living in the intersection of any of those identities insidiously compounds and compounds that lack of safety.

And yet, presentations and speaking out in meetings, speaking “publicly”, is a part of most of our lives.

So what am I saying?

Yes, learn the “mechanical” aspects, the skills of doing a presentation. Hell, I wrote a whole, very detailed book on how to do just that.

Yes, even learn the (somewhat) mechanical skills of lowering adrenaline and dealing with nerves.

And and and… have compassion for yourself.

If you are, at times, scared of speaking up, speaking out, just know that the very fabric of our society supports only a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of people to feel safe and valued in being visible.

So, speak out, but be gentle on yourself when you do.

Meg Lightheart

Written by

Presentation & leadership coach. Inclusive and equitable culture specialist. Author. Queer. Trans she/her #blacklivesmatter http://megalightheart.com

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