In the old days, anyone who was afraid of standing before a crowd and delivering a speech would check in to therapy. He would examine in his issues and try to work out why he feared public speaking.
The process would probably not produce any notable benefit. We recall Janet Malcolm’s study of the case of an analyst dubbed “Aaron Green” in her book The Impossible Profession.
Green had undergone psychoanalysis as part of his professional training. When he began analysis he was very afraid of speaking in public. When he finished analysis he was very afraid of speaking in public.
Let’s not call it a great success.
Today, people who are afraid to speak in public will often sign up with a group called Toastmasters. Recently, New York Times reporter Henry Alford did just that.
At Toastmasters meetings people do not sit around talking about why they are afraid to speak up in public. They stand up and speak to the assembled group.
Moreover they do not just learn about the psychological side of the issue; they learn how to construct an effective speech.
Alford explains correctly that no one can overcome a fear of public speaking without doing a great deal of public speaking. One suspects, for example, that teachers conquer their fear of public speaking by doing their job.
The result: Toastmasters did not eliminate all of Alford’s anxiety, but it helped him get it under control. It taught him how to give an engaging speech.
Without having further information one does not know how well the approach would work with people who are suffering from phobias about public speaking. Nevertheless, Toastmasters is therapeutic in ways that many forms of therapy are not.
Nearly everyone will, at some point or another, be called upon to deliver a speech in public. It might not be before an audience of thousands, but you will surely be called on to present a report to a committee or to pitch some new business to a prospective client.
Whatever the case, it’s a good to learn how to deliver a speech.
Like many phobias, fear of public speaking has a rational basis. It makes sense that people would feel less than comfortable about standing up in public and exposing themselves to scrutiny. As famed psychologist Aaron Beck pointed out, most of the situations and objects that provoke intense fear are dangerous: snakes, spiders, heights and crowds.
A phobia is a rational fear taken to an extreme. Despite what psychoanalysts used to believe, it is not about nothing.
In any event, Toastmasters should count as a quasi-cognitive-behavioral treatment for those whose inability to deliver an effective speech has been inhibiting their career advancement.