I’ve been standing in front of people speaking most of my career. Should not be a problem. And while I still am asked to do that, I must be doing something useful for audiences. I have only recently taken up public speaking as in conferences, though. Speaking is very different from facilitating and training. Very. The difference in emotional intensity is like going straight for a round of penalty shots instead of playing a long game in sports.

What I could not put my finger on, until today, was that why on earth was I so ridiculously nervous before some occasions and at full ease at others? Why did I feel like speaking with my friends when talking at the conference Spark the change, Toronto, on Thursday? Stupid me. Of course! I’m reading up on social psychology and social and cognitive neuroscience and the answer is right in front of me.

Spark organizers took very good care of me as a speaker, not only logistically, but socially. They looked after me before, during and after the conference. They made me feel very welcome, they shared relevant information frequently about logistics, venue, participants etc. We joked around by e-mail which made the group feel as my “in-group”. They made sure I got to know some organizers at the speaker’s dinner before the conference, which meant that I knew some friendly faces in the audience. Lots of relatedness going on in the room before I went on stage. I was speaking with the people, not at them. (OK, as a pro coach and facilitator, I rarely speak at the people anyway…)

In-groups and Out-groups

The difference of feeling that the organizers and the audience is my “in-group” rather than an “out-group” is remarkable from a neuroscience perspective. Here are some findings that I find are relevant.

  • Our reward regions in the brain are active when people similar to us win something. Your gain is my gain. (Mobbs et al, 2009)
  • Similar areas in our brain (vmPFC) are active when assessing how similar others think (my in-group) as when I am thinking about myself. (Mitchell et al, 2006). This, of course leads to a bias if you think about working creatively. But when you think about feeling at ease with a crowd, I would guess it is quite helpful having the illusion that you know the audience well.
  • We have less empathy with dissimilar others (Singer et al, 2004). Some empathy and feeling an emotional connection with your crowd might be useful for speaking, too, right?
  • People telling you “you are included” affects our brains reward system and seems to be as rewarding as extrinsic rewards (i.e. winning money) for our brain. (Izuma et al, 2008)
  • vmPFC activity in the brain predicts prosociality, and is suggested to induce a will to help others more. (Waytz, Zaki & Mitchell, 2012)

So Spark people; by taking care of me as a speaker you made me feel rewarded, at ease with my audience, willing to give and receive more, feeling that we all win if someone wins, and increased my sociality a bit. If what is suggested by mirror neurons is true, my good vibes were felt by the audience. They in turn retuned positive vibes to me, creating a positive, healthy social loop in the room during the talk.

I have during my life experienced extreme levels of social threat (bullying, high pressure team sports situations for 20 years, working in HR for 12 years [ha,ha]) and am lucky to have learned and developed healthy coping mechanisms for lots of situations. Feeling your body go all in for threat-mode while on stage is an amazing, powerful emotion. At its worst, it is like playoffs when the team starts playing as individuals (instead of as a team) and people start panicking. At best it is enjoying the adrenaline ride as in a rollercoaster. “Woooo! here we go, start speaking and ignore your voice is shaky, your heart is beating as if you’d be on the treadmill and you feel like you want to be hugged by a kind person for four minutes to calm you down”.  The only thing rescuing me from that situation, I know, is that I have trained, exercised and rehearsed enough so I can keep that threat under control by trusting I know what I am doing. “Just do what we have trained for a thousand times” is something a coach might say to a team stuck in threat mode. That usually opens up the emotional block and gets the game flowing again.

But oh, how easy and relaxing public speaking can be. As at Spark. This insight gave me more tools to cope with possible nervousness. If the organizers are not helping me get relaxed, I will be doing some mental up front “in-grouping” and lots of connecting with the audience before speaking.

Thank you Spark for the warm caring, thank you to my audience for returning good vibes. How cool is life?! People and people science rock!

Thanks for reading.



Izuma et al, 2008, Neuron

Mitchell et al 2006, Neuron

Mobbs et al, 2009, Science

Singer et al, 2004, Science

Picture credits: erban / Source / CC BY-NC-ND

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