A staring lion face emerging from a shadowy background
iStock/Zocha_K

I’d like to talk to you about your fear of being eaten by lions, and how to overcome that fear.

Now maybe you’ve never really worried (much) about being eaten by actual lions as you go about your business amid the high-rises of Tokyo, Shanghai, London, New York, or whatever metropolis you work in. But the lion, and your fear of it, is out there. That fear is buried deep in your brain.

You probably experienced it the last time you gave a presentation.

Do People Fear Public Speaking More than Death?

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Jerry Seinfeld

The myth that people fear public speaking more than death came from a US publication called The Book of Lists which, in 1977(!), published a list of Greatest Human Fears. What was number one? You guessed it: speaking in front of people. Death was actually sixth, tied with sickness, yet behind insects and bugs at number three. If we follow the same logic as Seinfeld and many others, people fear bugs more than death.

And that’s it. That is the source of the myth that everyone’s more scared of the Grim Reaper than public speaking: a forty-year-old book with no actual research to back it up. But the myth, or some variation of it, has been repeated so much over the years that it’s almost been treated as fact.

And this myth isn’t just funny. It’s also dangerous because every time it gets repeated, it makes people more uncomfortable and anxious about public speaking and presenting. They start to see lions everywhere.

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Why We Fear Public Speaking

Nobody would deny that public speaking is a huge cause of stress, anxiety, and fear. At its worst, it can manifest as the condition glossophobia, an actual phobia of speaking in public. There is a very real psychological basis for being uncomfortable with public speaking. It speaks to something very deep in our past as a species, something linked to a very common human fear: the fear of ostracism, of being outside of the group.

Humans have an innate fear of ostracism. In the old, old days, if we didn’t fit in, or if we didn’t perform well, we might’ve been kicked out of our tribe—and then have to worry about getting eaten by a lion while we’re shivering in the dark away from the campfire, hungry and alone.

That primitive fear of ostracism (and its consequences) has the same physiological manifestations that many people fear when they have to stand up and give a presentation. We get dry mouth, we sweat, we shake. Our eyes dart around, looking for danger.

We’re waiting for the lion to pounce.

If we don’t perform well in front of the group, the tribe, that very old part of our brain is telling us that the audience may dislike us. They may kick us out of the safety of the group, leaving us as dinner for lions. That’s the part of our brain telling us to panic when we need to do public speaking.

Lion on the savannah at sunset hunts for a nervous public speaker
Feel like this guy’s in the audience every time you stand up to speak in front of people? | Unsplash

How to Not Get Eaten by Lions

So what did our ancient ancestors do to make sure they’d never get kicked out of the tribe? They made sure they had skill. They got better at hunting, or making tools, or storytelling. They practiced and learned and got better.

Like anything else in life, we build our confidence by getting better at it, and the best way to get better at anything is simply to do it as much as possible. Fear of public speaking is a fear of performance. Train yourself, and you’ll learn by doing.

Rest assured, even experienced public speakers can feel that fear of not performing well. It’s usually a sign of under-preparation. Confident speakers, regardless of experience, are usually the ones who’ve prepared, the ones who’ve practiced, who know their material and who have rehearsed it well.

So study actively on getting better at presentation skills, and prepare properly whenever you do need to make a presentation. Then you can face your tribe much better. And of course, doing will always beat studying. Fight that fear is by facing it, not reading about facing it. Get out there and deliver as many presentations as possible.

Raise your hand whenever you have a chance to present!

Overcoming My Own Fear of Big Cats

I began my career as a public speaker by giving presentations about a government R&D tax credit program to audiences full of accountants and engineers. Can you imagine a more boring topic than taxes?

But I volunteered for that job. I raised my hand because I knew I needed to get better at presenting and public-speaking—and conquer my fear. Believe me, I used to be terrified of public speaking, but by doing it I got better, little by little. It took me a few years, but it’s possible to do it a lot faster—study, watch, and learn from other speakers. And again, seize every opportunity to speak yourself.

Sure, that fear never totally goes away. We’re all still a little nervous when presenting in front of crowds. But with enough practice, that fear becomes manageable, and we don’t show it to others.

When you do present, make sure you are prepared. Give yourself plenty of time to create the presentation, run it by your colleagues to get feedback, refine and revise it, and rehearse it. Know every slide. Do that, and your performance fear will go down. In fact, you may even find you enjoy it! I certainly do! I went from someone who was incredibly nervous at public speaking, who hated it, to someone who actively looks for chances to speak in public.

Why? Because it’s fun and it makes me better! Because it contributes to my career success and helps me to help others.

Because it’s necessary.

A Core Skill for the 21st Century

Presentation literacy should be a core part of every school’s curriculum, on par with reading and math. It’s going to be an important life skill to have in the decades ahead.”

Chris Anderson, Curator of TED

Getting better at presenting and public-speaking is not a nice-to-have—it is a must-have for success in business. We need to get better at sharing our ideas to become leaders, help ourselves and our businesses succeed, create value for others, and change the world. Yes, we’ll still be a little nervous and uncomfortable speaking in front of people. But like any other skill, we get better through practice, experience, and preparation. These are all techniques which can be learned.

That’s how to fight your fear of being eaten by lions.