The Talking Cure

What does it take to conquer a phobia? Maybe just 12 hours of insane courage.

Posted Sep 28, 2017

Ryan Pfeiffer/Metroland
Source: Photo credit: Ryan Pfeiffer/Metroland

It was little consolation to Franco Scanga that his misery had company. That his number one fear—public speaking—was also the number one fear of adults in general, according to some studies. All that mattered was it was holding him back, professionally and personally. It seemed bigger than him. And the more he avoided it, the heavier a burden it became.

Then something happened; his father got cancer for the third time. The ordeal put Scanga’s own glossophobia in the shade.

“My first thought was, ‘I wish I could trade places with him,” he says.

That gave Scanga, a 40-year-old asset manager at a tech college in Oshawa, Ontario, an idea. He couldn’t fight his father’s fight. But he could fight his own fight, in his father’s service.

“My mind immediately jumped to the most extreme thing I could do.”

Three words: public speaking marathon. Scanga would double down on his fear, and raise money for cancer research in the bargain.

The Guinness World Record was 21 speeches in 24 hours, Scanga discovered. Ralph Nader set it during his 2008 Presidential run.

That’s a lot of speeches, Scanga thought. Then he thought: I can beat that, and he started making plans.

**

Psychologists call it “flooding,” or sometimes “in vivo” exposure therapy. In effect, you tackle the phobia with a massive dose of the feared stimulus. If you’re frightened of spiders, you might spend an afternoon handling them in controlled conditions. If you’re frightened of clowns, you might spend a day at the circus. The idea is that when the feared outcome (dying, fainting, being massively ridiculed) doesn’t happen, the association is broken. The fight-or-flight alarm no longer stays stuck in the “on” position when you see a spider or a clown or a bunch of strangers in business attire looking at you with their arms crossed.

For Scanga, the fear response would be tested over and over again. The Guinness World Record people had seen to that. Since Ralph Nader set the one-day public-speaking record, they had changed the rules. No longer can you just deliver the same speech over and over again, as Nader did. The new terms were: you must deliver a different speech at each location, and no reading from notes. This was going to take some courage.

Scanga prepared for his big day the way a Navy seal prepares for a rescue mission. He visited each of the venues he’d lined up to speak in and practiced in front of the empty room. He visualized the room full of onlookers, rapt and appreciative because he was killing it up there, relaxed and confident and delivering this gift to the crowd.

Scanga had started jump-rope training. Here he doubled down on the classical conditioning. At the end of each session, slickered with sweat and gasping for breath, he practiced giving a speech. He learned to control his voice, despite his red-lining heart. He was teaching his body that, even in high-arousal conditions, there was nothing to fear. He was perfectly safe.

**

At 7:45 a.m. on April 30, 2016, at a chilly outdoor public square, Scanga delivered a quote from Martin Luther King:

Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the staircase.”

And his butterfly marathon was underway. A team of volunteers stood by to help him get to where he was going, to paper the seats at each venue to meet the Guinness attendance requirements, to help him bag his record. There was no turning back.

As he'd expected, each stop delivered a fresh jolt of nerves. Scanga stayed the course.

Afternoon shaded into evening. But his training was paying off: Scanga wasn’t flagging. “If anything I had more energy,” he says.

He barely registered that he had broken the record after stop 22. It was the next stop, the last stop, that mattered.

At the Italian Club, beloved of his bricklayer father who “literally helped build the place,” Scanga ditched his template and just talked from his heart. He fought to contain his emotions as his eyes fastened on the man who was the subject of the speech.

The official Guinness World Record certificate arrived in Scanga’s mailbox not long ago. He doesn’t show it to many people; this was a private victory. It was for his father, and also for every relative of a cancer sufferer who ever said: “I wish I could trade places with them.”

He raised around $14,000 for cancer research.

And what of his debilitating phobia?

Scanga admits he still feels that “jolt” every time he steps on stage. But here’s the difference: his body no longer reads the jolt as fear. It reads it as excitement. “I think that day actually changed my brain,” he says. “I can retain information more easily. I’m able to focus like a laser.” The exercise proved an accidental mindfulness hack. Scanga is more patient now, more optimistic. More like the Franco of old, the Franco they know, his friends say. 

And, oh yes; his dad is doing great.

For a longer account of Franco Scanga’s experiment in flooding, go to onebigday.net