A Matter of Perspective

February 19, 2010

The other day I was talking to someone about the statistic that supposedly claims people are more afraid of speaking in public than they are of dying–that is, people would rather die than speak in public. As Benjamin Disraeli said, "There are lies, there are damn lies, and there are statistics." And being a politician he was certainly well-acquainted with all three. I’ve really wondered who collected these statistics and if it was the same people who, several years ago, came to the conclusion that left-handers die significantly younger than right-handers. They arrived at this by interviewing people in nursing homes and finding that very few of them were left-handed, so obviously, they thought, all the left-handers died. Being a southpaw myself I was pretty rattled by this news until I learned that the survey was flawed. The people in nursing homes came from a generation where most left-handed children were forced to do everything right-handed, unless it was play baseball where being left-handed can actually be an advantage. Well, it’s an advantage for some people. I’m a lousy baseball player myself, which is why I was second-baseman for the Cubs for three years, but that’s another story.

What I’ve always wondered about the public speaking or death statistic is how the original question was phrased. If you ask someone "What do you fear most?" you’re probably going to get a tremendous range of answers and for many people death may not even come to mind because, while it’s not something anyone I know really looks forward to, we’ve all got to cash in our chips eventually, whereas speaking in public is something not everyone will have to face and which anyone who’s really that terrified of it could probably get out of. On the other hand if some stranger came up to me and said, "Okay, your choices are speaking in public or death," I’d have to be pretty darn scared of public speaking to say, "Well, as long as the death is painless and doesn’t involve heights or centipedes…" No, my initial response would be, "Is there a podium or am I just going to have to stand up there by myself?" And if someone gave me those choices I’m pretty sure I’d consider that a threat, which is a lot scarier than public speaking, so I’d take the opportunity to talk to the crowd on a subject very dear to me. And that subject would be: Help, there’s a crazy guy who’s just threatened to kill me if I don’t get up here and speak, so could someone please call the police?

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