Sunday, September 18, 2011

Jefferson & Fear of Public Speaking

From Sam Harris here. A taste:

It is widely believed that Thomas Jefferson was terrified of public speaking. John Adams once said of him, “During the whole time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three sentences together.” During his eight years in the White House, Jefferson seems to have limited his speechmaking to two inaugural addresses, which he simply read out loud “in so low a tone that few heard it.”

I remember how relieved I was to learn this. To know that it was possible to succeed in life while avoiding the podium was very consoling—for about five minutes. The truth is that not even Jefferson could follow in his own footsteps today. It is now inconceivable that a person could become president of the United States through the power of his writing alone. To refuse to speak in public is to refuse a career in politics—and many other careers as well.

Perhaps I imagine a connection that doesn't really exist, but I observe extremely intelligent folks -- especially the "verbally articulate" -- as likelier to struggle with anxiety and depression issues. If you dig deeper in the record you'll see this applies to among others Jefferson, Madison and Lincoln.

I struggle with fear of public speaking. But what do you mean, am I not a college professor? Isn't that all I do? In my mind, no. When I lecture to my students, it isn't public speaking. And time flies by and I have great fun. But when I am being evaluated or asked to speak in front of my peers, it is public speaking and time crawls. I've had some agonizing experiences.

But I recognize this is a total irrational illusion in my mind. And something in the ideal that should be transcended. And for the most part all anger and anxiety is irrational and illusory. If you don't need to run to save your life or to physically strike at something that threatens the physical safety of you and yours, anger or anxiety as an emotional reaction to a perceived threat is fundamentally irrational.

But internalizing that Truth is easier said than done.


Jason Pappas said...

I don't enjoy public speaking either. It was always a long hard slog--a stoic virtue. It got somewhat easier in time but never completely resolved.

However, I know some people who just love it. And some of them are intelligent!

Jonathan Rowe said...

If you get over the fear, public speaking can be very enjoyable because it helps you live in the moment. And being in the moment, in the present, is the key to happiness.

Phil Johnson said...

Seems I recall some popular movie actors telling how they have never overcome stage fright.

Boston public speaking said...

Interesting to know that TJ was scared of public speaking - I agree with your observation that intelligent and articulate people seem to suffer from that anxiety pretty often. Perhaps it is because they are more aware of how they are perceived? Or their knowledge of language makes them more aware of when they make a mistake. I took some public speaking training to help me get over my fears, but you can probably teach yourself some useful methods. I find that the anxiety of imagining yourself mess up is the worst because then you go in expecting yourself to fail. Imagine yourself succeeding and your audience laughing at all your jokes and asking engaging questions and chances are you will do well!