Surveys show that most people are nervous about public speaking and around 10% of people have an extreme fear. Glossophobia is the term used to describe persistent and excessive anxiety about public speaking.
I have written before about why people fear public speaking. It is primarily a fear of being judged. But self-doubt is also a factor. Confident presenters don’t worry so much about being judged!
This article is about how glossophobia comes about - what are the factors that cause nervousness (experienced by most of us) to morph into something more extreme?
I ask all my clients to complete a pre-course questionnaire. Although I don’t ask a direct question about how their anxiety started, many of them end up explaining this anyway. I have grouped their explanations into one or more of five categories.
They have had a traumatic experience
Many of my clients have had a specific experience that triggered their public speaking anxiety.
Often the event dates back to high school - a bad experience in front of the class. And it might not have even been public speaking. For one of my clients, the bad experience was reading aloud and having people mock his accent. For another, it was having a panic attack when she played an instrument.
Another client was a bright young girl, but her teacher noticed she struggled with speaking up. The teacher gave my client some speaking ‘assignments’ which required her to go into other classrooms. She reported being bullied, and the experience worsened her fear of public speaking.
Sometimes the experience occurs later in life and can hit people out of the blue. I had one client who used to enjoy public speaking. He had even emceed at several events. One day at work, the person who was supposed to be giving a presentation was sick, and my client was asked to step in. He got partway through the PowerPoint presentation and realised he didn’t understand the slides well enough to explain them!
Another client had her technology fail and had to talk without her slides. And another changed jobs and had to speak to her new work colleagues about something she didn’t feel qualified to talk about.
Although almost all my clients have had bad public speaking experiences, well over half, have also had good experiences. And some of them, like the client who had emceed, have had many more good experiences than bad experiences.
But the bad experiences stick! The ‘negativity bias’ causes us to dwell on bad experiences more than good experiences. We become fearful of a repeat. And unfortunately, the anxiety makes another bad experience more likely. Things can very quickly spiral downwards.
They have returned to public speaking after a long gap
Another common trigger is a career gap or change. For example, they may have taken maternity leave or switched to a job that doesn’t require public speaking.
Most of these people report that they had some nerves previously, but at manageable levels. When they got out of the habit of speaking frequently and then had to return to it, the nerves were so much worse.
In my last blog article, I wrote about how public speaking is much more like going to the gym than riding a bike. If you don’t use it, you lose it – sometimes with devastating consequences.
A career gap was what triggered a fear of public speaking for me. I was always a bit nervous, but I built up my confidence during the first fifteen years of my career. Then I took maternity leave and had few opportunities for public speaking. When I eventually returned to the workforce full time, communicating to audiences was a big part of my job. I found that the fifteen years of experience counted for very little. I started feeling very anxious – which then triggered a bad experience that I have written about elsewhere!
Life events have knocked their confidence
Anxiety about public speaking can be a side effect of a general loss of confidence – often brought about by a perceived failure. For example, I have had clients who reported developing a fear of public speaking after a divorce or bankruptcy.
At the start of this article, I said that a fear of public speaking is caused by anxiety about being judged combined with self-doubt. Challenging life events can affect the self-doubt part of this equation.
They have had no exposure to public speaking
A few of my clients claim to have had no good or bad public speaking experiences – usually, because they have never done it! Public speaking was something they were never comfortable with and so avoided for as long as possible.
Unfortunately, avoiding the thing that scares you tends to intensify the anxiety. It is not such a problem if you have a fear of bungy jumping – because you can easily avoid that for the rest of your life! But public speaking is surprisingly difficult to avoid. Becoming a manager or taking on a people-facing role can suddenly require people to speak to audiences when they have never had to before.
I even get the occasional retired person who has avoided public speaking for their entire career - only to find that they have to speak at their son or daughter’s wedding!
They have social anxiety
A small percentage of my clients report general social anxiety. Not only do they have problems with public speaking, but they struggle with all social interactions. As I am not a psychologist, I encourage people with social anxiety to get professional help before or alongside one of my courses.
Interestingly I find that people with mild social anxiety do very well on the course – and often even come to enjoy public speaking!
What about low self-esteem?
You might be surprised that low self-esteem does not appear in the list above.
Many of my clients report low self-esteem, even if they appear outwardly confident. However, I have not classified this as a separate trigger for a few reasons.
Firstly it usually coexists with one of these other factors. For example, people with low-self esteem are more likely to be avoiding public speaking.
Secondly, it is hard to separate cause and effect. Has low self-esteem caused the fear of public speaking, or has a bad public speaking experience contributed to someone's low self-esteem?
Thirdly, low self-esteem and self-doubt are closely related. The main difference is that self-doubt can be temporary, while low self-esteem tends to be a long term state. I have already said that self-doubt is a cause of public speaking anxiety. And so, I don't think it provides any fresh insights to say that low self-esteem can be a trigger for public speaking anxiety.
Addressing public speaking anxiety can help with building self-esteem. I can say from personal experience that delivering successful presentations has had a profound positive impact on my sense of self-worth. So while I have not separately identified it as trigger, our self-esteem is closely connected to our feelings about public speaking.
If you are still with me, it is probably because you have an intense fear of public speaking or know someone else who does.
Regardless of what factors triggered the anxiety, I have found that the same approach to addressing the fear works for almost everyone.
There are four elements to the approach. Fear-less public speaking courses use this approach.
A safe environment with others who feel the same way
It can be highly reassuring to realise you are not alone and that others share your fear! Especially when you realise that they are also motivated, high performing people.
Tips and strategies for managing nerves
While talking about the fear of public speaking is not enough, it can help. Helping you to understand your anxiety and giving you some practical tools is an essential part of the approach.
Learning presentation skills
Approaching public speaking like any other complex skillset helps shift your focus away from the fear and towards acquiring a new set of skills.
A safe place to practice
This is the most important element. Gradual exposure in a safe environment allows you to expand your comfort zone and develop or rebuild your confidence slowly.
Article written by Catherine Syme
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I get huge satisfaction from seeing the relief, pride, and even joy that people experience when they complete a course and reflect on the progress they have made. See what others say for some inspiring stories.