Where does ‘stage fright’ come from?

Will Greenblatt

February 21, 2022

3 effects of evolution on public speaking

Look at the image below. What does it mean to you?

I see an ancient tribe of humans, telling stories around the campfire. This is the first image I show to my clients when we start our public speaking training, or a webinar, or a training session for a new OutLoud coach.

This is based on Simon Sinek’s principle of “Start With Why”, in this case: WHY are some people great speakers, and others make us want to never do business with them from the first moment they open their mouths? Starting with our evolutionary history is key, because we’ve evolved to be social animals, and this evolution has had 3 key effects on public speaking:

1. Communication is essential to our survival

COMMUNICATION IS ESSENTIAL to our survival. We managed to survive and thrive in groups by sharing life-saving information about where predators and food are, but also on an individual level, understanding our tribemates’ body language, tone of voice and eye contact among many other cues helped us understand, who is a friend? Who is a foe? Who can I trust? Who should I mate with? Not to mention, modern language with all of its complexity is thought by Noam Chomsky and others to be as young as 60,000 years old, meaning much of our communication before that was physical and non-verbal.

The (in)famous “Mehrabian model” or (7-38-55 model) states that only SEVEN PERCENT of what our audience perceives from us is from the words we choose, while 38% is tone of voice and 55% is body language. This is often over-cited and almost certainly not true (how could words possibly constitute only 7 percent of our spoken communication, given how much practical information we share?), but the numbers illustrate that our voice and body are WAY more important to how our audience is receiving us than we give them credit for.

2. We are addicted to stories

The second effect of our evolution on our public speaking is that we became ADDICTED TO STORY. The book The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall says that every human is moved by narrative because the tribes that told each other stories about things they learned that day in an entertaining way survived, and those that didn’t died out, so all modern humans are storytelling animals. This is evidenced in the way we consume movies, tv shows, music, books and podcasts like drugs, but also in that individuals who are good storytellers are often exorbitantly rewarded with money and fame simply for possessing for this skill (J.K. Rowling went from welfare to billionaire thanks to a story, and storytelling songwriter Bob Dylan recently sold his entire song catalogue for a reported $300-400 million).

3. We evolved into anxiety animals

And finally, we evolved into anxiety animals as well. Those of us who were calm and happy all the time, tended to be eaten by animals. Those of us who’s adrenaline and cortisol spiked every time we heard a noise or sat around panicking about where our next month’s meals would come from, tended to survive.

We have a fantastic fight or flight mode which is great for avoiding predators, but in modern day society, ANXIETY KILLS OUR ABILITY TO BE PRESENT. When it’s our turn to speak on a webinar, or give our pitch, instead of thinking about how to communicate with our audience, our reptilian brains are panicking, thinking “oh my god, my whole tribe is listening to me! If I say something wrong, they will throw me out of the cave to die! Or I’ll lose the respect of everyone and never get a chance to procreate!” All very important considerations to our ancient ancestors, but entirely untrue these days.

If you have a boring sales presentation, your audience is very unlikely to kill you. However, given that we only began living outside of small hunter-gatherer tribes 11-12,000 years ago, our brains simply have not evolved to properly understand this fact. After a conversation with the neuroscientist Dr Tabrizi several years ago, I believe this is where stage fright comes from.

Now of course, we find ourselves in this “new normal” of Zoom, Teams, and Google Meet video calls, instead of talking to people in person. The truth is, not a single one of us on earth is actually evolved to handle the bizarre paradigm of communicating through a screen. For that reason, it is even more important to reach through this technology barrier and GRAB people’s attention with powerful speaking skills, like a strong voice, warm tone, varied vocal inflection and engaged eyebrows and hand gestures.

I have many videos and articles on how to do this, and will be posting much more practical techniques, but I thought I’d share the ‘first principles’ of communication today, in the hopes that contextualizing these evolutionary effects on our public speaking will allow you to FORGIVE YOURSELF if you are not already the amazing speaking you’d like to be. We are battling years of evolutionary instinct each time we stand up to speak, so give yourself a break, and try to enjoy yourself ?

Please like and share this if you found it valuable, and let me know what you’d like to read about next!

P.S. If you want to improve your pitch fast, check out my Powerful Pitch Bootcamp here!