The old joke goes like this: Polls show that public speaking is the number one fear in this country. More people fear speaking in public more than they fear dying. So at a funeral, more people in the audience would rather be the dead guy than the one giving the eulogy. Not true, obviously, but mildly amusing. Sam Harris writes about his own fear of public speaking:
Fear of public speaking is also a fertile source of psychological suffering elsewhere in life. I can remember dreading any event where being asked to speak was a possibility. I have to give a toast at your wedding? Wonderful. I can now spend the entire ceremony, and much the preceding week, feeling like a condemned man in view of the scaffold.
Pathological self-consciousness in front of a crowd is more than ordinary anxiety: it lies closer to the core of the self. It seems, in fact, to be the self—the very feeling we call “I”—but magnified grotesquely. There are few instances in life when the sense of being someone becomes so onerous.
And he makes this argument about those who don’t feel such fear:
Of course, many people have solved the problem of what to do when a thousand pairs of eyes are looking their way. And some of them, for whatever reason, are natural performers. From childhood, they have wanted nothing more than to display their talents to a crowd. Many of these people are narcissists, of course, and hollowed out in unenviable ways. Where your self-consciousness has become a dying star, theirs has become a wormhole to a parallel universe. They don’t suffer much there, perhaps, but they don’t quite make contact here either. And many natural performers are comfortable only within a certain frame. It is always interesting, for instance, to see a famous actor wracked by fear while accepting an Academy Award. Simply being oneself before an audience can be terrifying even for those who perform for a living.
I find myself somewhere in between on this one. I’ve never had a fear of public speaking at all that I can remember. I began speaking in public when I was 14 or so and I was never really nervous about it. I don’t know why. It certainly isn’t because I had some self-confidence that others lacked at that age (though I probably do now); I was a typical teenager with all the usual insecurities. I’m sure the thought of talking to a girl terrified me as much as the next guy, but getting up in front of an audience always seemed natural to me.
But I also don’t think that I’m a “born performer,” though I have performed in front of many audiences. I think Harris hits on the truth here:
Needless to say, I am not a born performer. Nor am I naturally comfortable standing in front of a group of friends or strangers to deliver a message. However, I have always been someone who had things he wanted to say. This marriage of fear and desire is an unhappy one—and many people are stuck in it.
I think I am also just someone who had things he wanted to say, but I had that comfort in front of an audience that Harris lacked for some reason. I don’t think that’s necessarily narcissistic, but it does at least suggest a bit of arrogance. Harris makes a big distinction between an author and a speaker, pointing out that while he is entirely comfortable writing a book he’s terrified of talking about that book in public. Thomas Jefferson was the same way. But as Mencken wrote decades ago, the root is probably the same:
The answer, it seems to me, is as plain as mud. An author is simply a man in whom the normal vanity of all men is so vastly exaggerated that he finds it a sheer impossibility to hold it in. His overpowering impulse is to gyrate before his fellow men, flapping his wings and emitting his defiant yells. This being forbidden by the Polizei of all civilized countries, he takes it out by putting his yells on paper. Such is the thing called self-expression.
This is exaggerated, of course, but there’s a core of truth to it. Call it arrogance or confidence, something like it is probably required to be comfortable standing up in public giving speeches. One almost has to think, at least subconsciously, “Of course people are eager to hear me talk about this. Who wouldn’t be?”