Want to know why you get nervous when you present?

In her New York Times bestselling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain shares an interesting theory on nervousness associated with public speaking. She writes:

“In fact, public speaking anxiety may be primal and quintessentially human, not limited to those of us born with a high-reactive nervous system [introverts]. One theory, based on the writings of of the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, holds that where our ancestors lived on the savannah, being watched intently meant only one thing: a wild animal was stalking us. And when we think we’re about to be eaten, do we stand tall and hold forth confidently? No we run. In other words, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution urge us to get the hell off the stage, where we can mistake the gaze of spectators for the glint in a predator’s eye. Yet the audience expects not only that we’ll stay put, but that we’ll act relaxed and assured. This conflict between biology and protocol is on e reason that speechmaking can be so fraught.”

Hopefully, Cain’s explanation provides some solace if you, like most speakers, experience nervousness when you give presentations. Also, know that with experience, the anxiety will become more manageable, but will never entirely cease because our species has survived based on our instinct to run in similar situations.


  1. Craig Hadden (@RemotePoss)

    This is a fascinating topic, so thanks for sharing, Christine. I just watched a great TEDx talk along similar lines, too.

    You might also be interested in this critique of Allan Pease’s TEDx talk on body language. Would love to hear your thoughts.

    To me, the 2-way relationship between our feelings and our body language is remarkable.

    1. Christine Clapp
      Christine Clapp

      Thanks for sharing the TEDx talk and your critique. I liked the talk’s focus on hands — rather than all body language. The background on the handshake was interesting and new to me. And, the tips on how to shake hands are great because it’s a big problem for some professionals in job interviews and business meetings. I also was interested in his research and would love to know where it is published. I’ve always talked about having “open” gestures (hands up) rather than pointing, but this empirical research is more detailed and would be nice to share as well.

      I agree with you that the raising the lights in the intro was unfortunate. It should have been done before he went on stage / during a sound check the day before. It started the presentation off on an awkward note. And, my biggest suggestion would be for him to slow his rate of speaking. With his accent and fast pace, I missed a few words and phrases here and there. Thanks again for your note and checking in here.

      1. Craig Hadden (@RemotePoss)

        You’re welcome!

        Unfortunately I don’t know Allan’s sources, but I know he’s written a few books, so if you look them up I imagine he might cite some sources in print.

        I know what you mean about his pace. As I’m a naturalised Australian, I suppose I’m used to it – and the accent!

        About the lights, I’ve come to the conclusion it was a setup so he could get in his joke at the audience’s expense. So it was a questionable technique all round!