Science TED-Ed

Required watching for any TED speaker: The science of stage fright

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

One thing can strike fear into the heart of the fiercest warrior, the most powerful CEO and the smartest person in any given room: having to speak in public. The thought of it makes the palms sweat, the heart beat faster and the limbs start to shake. An estimated 75% of people have a fear of speaking in public, and it’s something that nearly everyone who takes the TED stage must work hard to overcome.

This TED-Ed lesson, the science of stage fright, just might help. In the lesson — which is taught by educator Mikael Cho and directed by animator Robertino Zambrano of KAPWA Studioworks — looks at stage fright not as an emotion, but as a physiological response. In other words, it’s not so much something to be overcome as to be adapted to.

“Humans are wired to worry about reputation. Public speaking can threaten it,” says Cho in the lesson. “It’s the fight-or-flight response, a self-protective process seen in a range of species.”

The lesson explains exactly what happens in the body before speaking in public and, of course, gives suggestions on how to calm stage fright. The obvious: practice, practice, practice. The not-so-obvious: stretch your arms above your head before you go on to trigger a relaxation response in the hypothalamus. (Yeah, it kind of reminded us of Amy Cuddy’s idea of power posing too.)

Over on the TED-Ed blog, animator Zambrano shares what shaped the imagery for this very cool lesson.

“After reading the first lines of Mikael Cho’s script, quite a few images popped in my head. This needed to be dark, it needed to be frantic, it needed to be really, really visceral,” he says. “If you close your eyes and think about the most immediate image of stage fright, you think about the lone speaker under the spotlight, separated from the masses, looking at you, judging you. You think about the harsh lighting, long shadows, and hidden faces of the audience. So, the first image I painted up was the opening shot, right before the title, which shows the speech-giver looking at a faceless audience, eyes wide in fear, alone under the spotlight. I also chose the handmade painterly feel to maximize the rawness of the piece. Fear isn’t nice and polished; it’s gritty, it’s dirty, and it’s like a bad, bad dream.”

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