We tend to talk a lot about the fear of public speaking and how to overcome it. But one thing you won’t hear many people talking about is how public speaking can be a bit of an addiction. If you are someone who loves being in front of an audience, you may not have to deal with fear. Instead, you may have to deal with the power trip that comes from the spotlight of public speaking.
Let’s look at what research and experts can tell us about the addictive lure of the spotlight. Then, we’ll try to put it in perspective with some tips on how to avoid letting an addiction to public speaking derail your purpose.
Harvard neuroscientist Diana Tamir along with her colleague Jason Mitchell have been researching why we love the sound of our voices so much. Using MRI scans to study the brain activity of participants, they found that participants’ brain activity increased when they talked about themselves. This resulted in higher levels of dopamine which is the “region of the brain that is associated with reward, euphoria and satisfaction.” In a related study, Tamir and Mitchell found that most participants would rather talk about themselves for free than get paid to talk about something or someone else. So having the opportunity to self-disclose is connected to biological feelings of reward or elation which is why some people love any opportunity to speak in front of an audience.
Some people don’t get addicted to public speaking because they like talking about themselves. Instead, they love the attention of the spotlight. Psychologist, author, and professor Cary Cooper has studied the types of people who seek the kind of fame and attention found in things like public speaking. He says people seek the spotlight for different reasons. Some are motivated by achieving something they thought they couldn’t manage. Others seek the spotlight because they want to feel loved. But proving yourself or wanting to gain admiration shouldn’t be your primary purpose for giving a speech.
Talking about ourselves or being in the spotlight aren’t inherently bad desires or goals. Still, let’s put both of these addictive traps into perspective.
First, research shows that 30-40% of our speech is communicating our experiences to others. That’s not likely to change, nor should it. Telling our stories is a beautiful part of sharing our human existence. So this isn’t a call to stop talking about yourself. However, it is a reminder that we need to balance our talk time with listening time. In addition, we need to remember the study above which tells us that public speaking can literally be like a drug for us—rewarding us with dopamine. If you find yourself loving public speaking for the rewards it gives you, just keep things in balance. Communication is about connection and continuing the grand conversation that keeps the world moving forward. When you forget that conversation should include voices other than your own, it’s time for a wake-up call.
Second, it’s not wrong to crave the spotlight. But let’s challenge ourselves to crave it for the right reasons. Fame and attention are often fleeting. And they are self-focused. Instead of being driven by the need to be seen or heard, aim to be driven by the need to make an impact or communicate something of value. That slight perspective shift can help you to be less self-focused and more audience-focused.
If you find yourself power tripping on public speaking, check yourself. Your audience needs you to be warm, honest, and sensitive to their perspectives and needs. That’s tough to do when you are under the addictive lure of the spotlight.
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