One of my school’s many forms of torture was making a course on public speaking mandatory. I’ve always been introverted with a very fun kind of social anxiety, so this was a horrifying. And not just because I can only communicate eloquently with a keyboard; introverts are biologically more prone to a fear of public speaking and all the vocal jitters that come with it.
No, really! According to new research published in Brain Imaging and Behavior, stress directly impacts our ability to talk coherently during public speaking. It mostly has to do with how the brain interacts with our laryngeal muscles, the muscles that help produce complex sounds. The brain tries to coordinate with those muscles to make what you and I know as “speech.” One area responsible for that coordination is the laryngeal motor cortex, but other secondary brain areas (the anterior cingulate cortex, for example) contribute to speech as well.
Why is that important? Well, let me paint a picture of my worst nightmare.
In the small study, 13 women were told they had to deliver an impromptu five-minute speech arguing who would be the best candidate for a law firm, and that—no pressure—it could start at any minute. As the women prepared for the speech, researchers investigated their saliva and hormone levels. When cortisol levels spiked, it shut down certain areas of the cortex that influences speaking. Those with “high cortisol reactivity” were exhibiting stress reactions, like that stuttering and that frog-in-the-throat feeling. And you know who had the highest cortisol levels? Women who identified as introverts.
I assume that you’re either in one or two camps right now. In the first camp, you’re a bombastic extrovert who’s thinking, “Do introverts want to be excused from doing everything? Like, learn how to talk.” Which like, bro, I get it. In the second camp, you have quieter people who are thinking, “Well, duh, if I’m nervous about speaking to one person, how that hell am I expected to speak in front of 50?” Which like, dude, I know.
While public speaking is generally overwhelming for almost everyone, this stress factor has to be why it’s particular so unbearable for some people. A widely circulated claim is that people fear public speaking over dying. In a 2017 examination of American fears, conducted by Chapman University, death and public speaking are neck and neck, with 20.3 percent and 20 percent, respectively of people reporting “afraid or very afraid.”
But even the most shy, panicky waif can get through a speech in front of a crowd. I know this because, in a weird plot twist, I found the mandatory public speaking course to be a somewhat enjoyable and useful experience. (I got to deliver not one but two speeches dressed as Marie Antoinette, so…) These days, I can deliver one hell of a monologue.
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