Skip to main content

Butterfly Effect 蝴蝶效應

I woke up one morning to the buzz of an incoming email on my phone. “Dear Jason,” the message started off disarmingly innocuous, “we are delighted to invite you to our 13th Annual Student Awards ceremony.” The sender was the chairman of a respected NGO that supports underprivileged children in Hong Kong. But the invitation took a sudden, horrifying turn: “It would give us great pleasure if you would be our keynote speaker to address 500 honor students at City Hall. We look forward to your favorable response.” Gulp, gasp, gag. I threw my phone across the bed and leapt to the bathroom. I was ready to hurl.

Scarier than death

Surveys have shown that most people, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity, fear public speaking more than they fear death. Jerry Seinfeld famously joked that the average person at a funeral would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy. The phenomenon is called glossophobia, derived from glossa, the Greek word for tongue. The symptoms are those associated with the classic fight-or-flight response: pounding heart, sweaty palms, wobbly knees and a rabble of butterflies in the stomach. For the introverts among us, the mere thought of standing up and talking in front of a crowd is enough to trigger a panic attack. It is the sum of all fears: rejection, public humiliation, and if the speech is taped and uploaded onto YouTube, a searchable embarrassment that will last for eternity.

Nowhere are those fears felt more strongly than in Asia, where children tend to learn by rogue and are taught to be docile. In conformist countries like Japan, Korea and China, speaking up in the classroom or voicing an opinion at the dinner table is often mistaken for rebellion and therefore discouraged, which gives young people little chance to hone their verbal skills. Once they are out in the real world, the virtue of silence quickly turns into a vice, when they are asked to give a presentation or lead a conference call. Fears set in and all the rookie mistakes show up: reading off the slides, dodging eye contact, and looking as cheerful as an inmate strapped to his execution gurney. 

Shut up and learn

Psychologists believe that our speech anxiety has to do with the fear of being ostracized. Humans are social animals and we form social groups to survive the perilous world. Early humans depended on each other to fend off predators and starvation, which makes social acceptance a necessary condition for survival and ostracism a form of social death that preceded the actual, physical one. Glossophobia is our natural response to the risk of being judged publicly and negatively, the same way we are programmed to fear heights and rodents to mitigate the risk of falling and contracting deadly diseases. In other words, those butterflies in our stomachs are the result of millennia of genetic mutations, designed to stop us from sticking our necks out and drawing too much attention to ourselves – a risky proposition for anyone living in a lawless commune of axe-throwing, arrow-shooting Neanderthals.

But loincloths and mammoth furs are so 10,000 B.C. A few things have changed since our hunter-gatherer days, including the wisdom of flying under the radar. Public speaking in the 21st Century is as ubiquitous as it is inescapable. These days, everyone from a 20-year-old web designer pitching for a new gig to a middle-aged soccer mom voicing a grievance at the PTA meeting will find themselves in the hot seat. The ability to address an audience with composure is no longer expected only of presidential candidates and tech company CEOs, but anyone who wants to be heard. In the age of black turtlenecks and TED Talks, glossophobia has devolved from a defense mechanism to a career-limiting defect. The butterflies that were meant to protect us from dangers are now holding us back in life.

Shut up or die!

The urgent need to treat glossophobia has spawned a glut of self-help books and magazine articles. A vast majority of them go through the usual dos and don’ts: do practice with friends, do picture the audience in their underwear, don’t use throwaways like “um” and “er”. But if reading a book could cure stage fright, there wouldn’t be so many glossophobes still shaking behind the microphone or dragging themselves to Toastmasters meetings week after week, year after year. To learn how to swim, as it is often said, we just have to jump into the deep end of the pool and start flapping our arms. Anything else, like kicking around all day with a foam board, is likely a waste of time.

That takes me back to the ominous email that rocked me out of bed one fine morning. The next day I accepted the chairman’s invitation and immediately began working on my speech. I practiced in front of the mirror every day for two weeks, each time getting better but discovering something I needed to correct. In the end I did all right. I wasn’t nearly as nervous talking on stage as I was preparing for it. But the whole ordeal frustrated me – because irrationality frustrates me, as does the notion that I have to take orders from, of all things, my adrenal glands. My job at the awards ceremony was to inspire young minds, but every last ounce of enjoyment from that otherwise beautiful experience had been sucked out by my over-preparation, all because I needed to keep my irrational nerves at bay. That night I said to myself: never again.

One of the many self-help books on overcoming stage fright

That was five years ago. Since then I have taken the plunge into the deep end of the proverbial pool, taking on as many speaking engagements as time allows. As a lawyer, I jump on every opportunity to give seminars and chair meetings. As an author, I go on the lecture circuit, give radio interviews and speak at literary events big and small. I have learned to not only control my nerves but relish the adrenaline rush. I have discovered that we fear public speaking because we make it all about ourselves – how we sound, how we look and how much we impress. But who gives a hoot? The only thing the audience cares about is what they get out of sitting in the room instead of being somewhere else. Depersonalization – the recognition that the world does not revolve around one person – has made me a better speaker. It has set me free. 

Public speaking is not an inborn skill. On the contrary, we are genetically programmed to fear it. Going against our instinct requires patience: we can’t expect to overnight overcome a phobia millions of years in the making. But the human brain is a muscle, and like all muscles it can be trained. If we fail horribly the first 23 times, we are bound to get better on the 24th try. The only way to become an effective speaker is by getting to a point where speaking in public is as uneventful as talking to friends or reading a bedtime story. Every great speaker we admire, from Bill Clinton to Emma Watson (who won kudos for a recent speech on gender equality at the United Nations), can do what they do not because they are missing the glossophobia gene, but because they have done it a thousand times over. As much as we like to associate oratorical skills with knowledge, charisma and superpower, in the end it comes down to one simple, unglamorous word: repetition.

Rely on the power of habit

___________________________

This article was published in the April 2015 issue of MANIFESTO magazine as "Going Public" under Jason Y. Ng's column “The Urban Confessional.”

As published in MANIFESTO

Popular Posts

About the Author 關於作者

Born in Hong Kong, Jason Y. Ng is a globetrotter who spent his entire adult life in Italy, the United States and Canada before returning to his birthplace to rediscover his roots. He is a lawyer, published author, and contributor to The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Free Press and EJInsight. His social commentary blog As I See It and restaurant/movie review site The Real Deal have attracted a cult following in Asia and beyond. Between 2014 and 2016, he was a music critic for Time Out (HK)
Jason is the bestselling author of Umbrellas in Bloom (2016), No City for Slow Men (2013) and HONG KONG State of Mind (2010). Together, the three books form a Hong Kong trilogy that tracks the city's post-colonial development. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies. In 2017, Jason co-edited and contributed to Hong Kong 20/20, an anthology that marks the 20th anniversary of the handover. In July 2017, he was appointed Advising Editor for the Los Angeles Review…

Seeing Joshua 探之鋒

“We are here to visit a friend,” I said to the guard at the entrance. 
Tiffany, Joshua Wong Chi-fung’s long-time girlfriend, trailed behind me. It was our first time visiting Joshua at Pik Uk Correctional Institution and neither of us quite knew what to expect.

“Has your friend been convicted?” asked the guard. We nodded in unison. There are different visiting hours and rules for suspects and convicts. Each month, convicts may receive up to two half-hour visits from friends and family, plus two additional visits from immediate family upon request.
The guard pointed to the left and told us to register at the reception office. “I saw your taxi pass by earlier,” he said while eyeing a pair of camera-wielding paparazzi on the prowl. “Next time you can tell the driver to pull up here to spare you the walk.”
At the reception counter, Officer Wong took our identity cards and checked them against the “List.” Each inmate is allowed to grant visitation rights to no more than 10 friends and fam…

What’s Killing Hong Kong Bookstores? 誰令香港的書店滅亡?

Earlier this month, Page One unceremoniously announced the closure of its megastores at Harbour City and Festival Walk, ending the Singapore bookseller’s nearly two-decade stint in Hong Kong. The news came less than two years after Australian outfit Dymocks shut down its IFC Mall flagship and exited the city.
Reaction on social media to the loss of yet another bookstore chain was both immediate and damning. While some attributed Page One’s demise to competition from e-books and online retailers, many put the blame on the lack of a robust reading culture in Hong Kong. Still others pointed their finger at greedy landlords and the sky-high rent they extort from retailers.
But what really killed Page One? An autopsy is in order to examine the cause of death of the book industry’s latest casualty.

E-books
The technorati have long prophesized the end of paper. Portable and affordable, Amazon’s Kindle and other e-readers are the physical book’s worst nightmare. But are they really?
After yea…

Join the Club 入會須知

You have reached a midlife plateau. You have everything you thought you wanted: a happy family, a well-located apartment and a cushy management job. The only thing missing from that bourgeois utopia is a bit of oomph, a bit of recognition that you have played by the rules and done all right. A Porsche 911? Too clichéd. A rose gold Rolex? Got that last Christmas. An extramarital affair that ends in a costly divorce or a boiled bunny? No thanks. How about a membership at one of the city’s country clubs where accomplished individuals like yourself hang out in plaid pants and flat caps? Sounds great, but you’d better get in line.

Clubs are an age-old concept that traces back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The introduction of coffee beans to England in the mid-17th Century spurred the proliferation of coffeehouses for like-minded gentlemen to trade gossip about the monarchy over a hot beverage. In the centuries since, these semi-secret hideouts evolved into main street establishments t…

Media Attention + Upcoming Events 媒體關注 + 最新動向

Upcoming events

Interview with Financial Times
Title: TBD by Ben Bland Publication date: early September
Reader at the PEN Hong Kongbilingual reading on human rights as part of the Worldwide Reading of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Venue: Art and Culture Outreach 艺鵠 Date: 6 September Time: 7:30pm
Talk at Raffles Institution (visiting from Singapore)
Topic: Hong Kong political development since the Umbrella Movement Venue: TBD Date: 22 September
Legal workshop for foreign domestic workers at University of Hong Kong's Domestic Workers Empowerment Project (DWEP) Topic: "Understanding Hong Kong Culture" Moderator: Dr. Michael Manio Venue: University of Hong Kong Date: October Time: 10:00am to 12:00pm
Keynote speaker at Leadership & Social Entrepreneurship Program graduation ceremony co-organized by Wimler Foundation and Aeteno University Venue: TBD Date: 22 October Time: 9:00am to 1:00pm
Contributor to HK24 (2017 Anthology by Hong Kong Writers Circle) Release dat…

Maid in Hong Kong - Part 1 女傭在港-上卷

Few symbols of colonialism are more universally recognized than the live-in maid. From the British trading post in Bombay to the cotton plantation in Mississippi, images abound of the olive-skinned domestic worker buzzing around the house, cooking, cleaning, ironing and bringing ice cold lemonade to her masters who keep grumbling about the summer heat. It is ironic that, for a city that cowered under colonial rule for a century and a half, Hong Kong should have the highest number of maids per capita in Asia. In our city of contradictions, neither a modest income nor a shoebox apartment is an obstacle for local families to hire a domestic helper and to free themselves from chores and errands.

On any given Sunday or public holiday, migrant domestic workers carpet every inch of open space in Central and Causeway Bay. They turn parks and footbridges into camping sites with cardboard boxes as their walls and opened umbrellas as their roofs. They play cards, cut hair, sell handicraft and p…

The Moonscape of Sexual Equality - Part 1 走在崎嶇的路上-上卷

There are things about America that boggle the mind: gun violence, healthcare costs and Donald Trump. But once in a while – not often, just once in a while – the country gets something so right and displays such courage that it reminds the rest of the world what an amazing place it truly is. What happened three days ago at the nation’s capital is shaping up to be one of those instances.

Last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a 5-to-4 decision on same-sex marriage, the most important gay rights ruling in the country’s history. In Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Kennedy wrote, “It would misunderstand [gay and lesbian couples] to say that they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find fulfillment for themselves… They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” 
With those simple words, Justice Kennedy made marriage equality a constitutionally prote…

The Hundredth Post 第一百篇

This month marks the third birthday of my blog As I See It, a social commentary on the trials and tribulations of living in Hong Kong. The occasion coincides with the 100th article I have written under the banner. Having reached a personal milestone, I decided to take the opportunity to reflect on my still-young writing career and wallow in, dare we say, self-congratulatory indulgence.

It all started in November 2008 on the heels of the last U.S. presidential election. I was getting ready to create a personal website as a platform to consolidate my interests and pursuits. To do that I needed content. That’s how my blog – or my “online op-ed column” as I prefer to call it – came into being. Before I knew it, I was banging it out in front of my iMac every night, going on and off the tangent and in and out of my stream of consciousness about the odd things I experienced in the city, the endless parade of pink elephants I saw everyday that no one seemed to bat an eyelid at. Though singin…