Presentation Skills and Professor Lupin – What Harry Potter can teach us about Public Speaking

Mary Donné public speaking
Does Fear of Public Speaking make you feel like this?

Professor Lupin taught Hogwarts students to banish the terrifying boggarts by chanting the spell, “Ridikulous!” accompanied by a loud crack of their wands.  This caused the boggart to assume a funny, no-longer-terrifying appearance, and thus lose its power to scare.  

Now if you don’t know Harry Potter, this probably won’t mean a lot so, in summary, the principle is that you cannot be scared of something that appears silly or daft.  Things are only terrifying when we give them the power to be.  Or in the famous words of, President Roosevelt, ‘the only thing to fear, is fear itself.’

Andy McNab, talking to Dr Kevin Dutton, in the marvellously named “Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success” discusses someone being scared of heights. He points out that such a person would easily stand on a piece of board on the ground, six feet long and two feet wide.  But take the same board and turn it into, for example, a diving board above a swimming pool, and they would be terrified. The board remains the same size – it is their mind which has created the fear and given the (diving) board the power to terrify.  

Now, as someone who is scared of heights, I am not so sure.  The reason I would be scared of the diving board as opposed to the board on the ground is because one is up in the air and I might fall off it!  I think Andy might be over-simplifying things. I do however accept the overall point that one’s imagination plays a huge part in how we deal with fear.  As we have seen with Harry Potter’s boggarts, and to agree with President Roosevelt, the fear we create within our own mind is often far more terrifying than the thing we think we are scared of.  If we can learn to accept that, then we can start to overcome it.

In his book, Snakes, Sunrises and Shakespeare, Gordon H. Orians, proposes that we are hardwired to be scared of certain things, for example, snakes.  This dates back to caveman times when our very survival depended on being able to identify potential predators.  

Keeping with this theme, Dr Karl Albrecht believes there are only five real fears, and that all others are self-created.  The five in question may be summarised as:

  • Fear of death.
  • Fear of isolation.
  • Fear of mutilation.
  • Fear of humiliation.
  • Fear of losing one’s autonomy.

While these groupings are fairly wide, the basic themes are the same as Professor Orian’s list.  Within a ‘caveman culture’, you probably wouldn’t have survived if you became separated from the group or were mutilated.  

The interesting one is ‘fear of humiliation’.  Carl Jung talks about ‘psychic death’ which, to my reading, is similar.  Logically, in a situation where survival depends upon blending in, you would do your utmost to avoid being prominent when a wildebeest came charging at the group.  Soldiers engaged in trench warfare don’t like standing upright for the same reason. More figuratively, unless you were a very dominant alpha-type character and wished to directly challenge the king, it was probably best to go through life keeping your head down and not attracting too much attention in case anyone stronger than you began to feel threatened.  

It follows, therefore, that a fear of drawing attention to oneself by standing up in front of a group of one’s peers is actually quite logical.  

Now do we see why fear of public speaking affects so many people? Drawing attention to ourselves both physically (taking the front stage) and verbally (by our speech) very much goes against our natural ‘hardwiring’.  

So when does a natural fear become a phobia?  Most people would probably agree that the line has been crossed when the fear begins to dominate or dictate your life.  You may be uncomfortable about standing up and giving a presentation to your work team (fear); but turning down a promotion or a role you would really like for this reason is more extreme (phobia).

I don’t like heights (fear) but when I began avoiding driving certain routes in case I had to go over a flyover (phobia), I realised I needed to seek help with my fear.

It is perfectly possible to overcome most fears but it takes time and support.  Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. The most effective way involves repeated exposure to the thing in small doses – ‘baby steps’ – in a safe and controlled way  Eventually, you simply learn to accept the anxiety (and this is a whole topic in itself!) and the fear will pass.

Is this something that interests you? I am an experienced public speaking coach and presentation skills coach.  

I hold training days in the Yorkshire region, and host regular webinars.

Please do contact me if you would like to discuss any of this, and in the meantime keep checking back for presentation skills tips.

York, UK

Author: marydonne

Training, Coaching, and HR Specialist.

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