The short answer is most people! But some people have extra high levels of anxiety about public speaking. This article explores how different personality types or attributes can affect people’s anxiety levels.
The typical demographic profile for people who take the Fear-less public speaking course is professional at an early to mid-career stage. Approximately two-thirds of our clients are female.
But the demographic profile is primarily driven by need and ability to pay the fees and is not very useful in explaining the fear of public speaking. Instead, this article offers insights into how personal attributes or personality types may (or may not) affect how people feel about public speaking.
These insights reflect my observations as a coach and a long-time member of Toastmasters. They are not scientifically tested, but I am confident they are valid.
Shy people and outgoing people can be affected by a fear of public speaking.
I want to start with debunking a myth – that is it only shy people who fear public speaking.
I often have people tell me that they have been shy their whole lives and that this is why they fear public speaking. Some shy people explain that their fear of public speaking is an extension of more generalised social anxiety.
While I am sure that shyness can contribute to a fear of public speaking, I don't believe that all shy people are nervous about public speaking or that all people who fear public speaking are shy.
I have written before about how introverts can be great public speakers. Being shy is often equated with being an introvert – although they are not quite the same.
Many people also tell me that they are usually very outgoing - even extroverted, but they have a huge fear of public speaking. These people are often genuinely perplexed about what is going on for them. They don't understand why they are so nervous when they consider themselves outgoing, confident people.
Having a fear of public speaking can be even more upsetting for outgoing people because no one expects them to be nervous. They often report that friends and colleagues don't understand what they are going through and say things like, "you are a confident person, so you will be fine." They struggle with the pressure to live up to other people's expectations.
Overall, while I believe there is some link between shyness and fear of public speaking, I suspect it is not strong. It is partly a story that people tell themselves – "I am shy; therefore, I fear public speaking."
If shyness is not the defining characteristic of a fear of public speaking, what is?
The majority of people who register for Fear-less courses are motivated, high achievers who set high standards for themselves. They strive to meet these standards, and their fear of public speaking makes them feel that they are falling short of their own expectations. This describes what is often known as the "Type A" personality.
You could argue that people with Type A personalities are simply more likely to do something about their fear of public speaking. And you could be right. But I suspect it is a little more than that.
Type A personalities (I am one of them) like to control their environment. Our typical response is to work longer and harder to achieve our goals. If there is a risk of not meeting a deadline, we will work longer hours. If we have a skill gap, we will work hard to address this gap.
The problem with public speaking is that some of it is outside of our control. We can control our preparation, but it doesn't always go to plan on the day.
Type A personalities tend to over-prepare by attempting to memorise what they want to say. But then they might panic if their nerves make them go blank. Or sound unnatural and robotic because they are recalling rather than thinking.
Type A personality types also tend to judge themselves harshly. I have written previously about how the negativity bias can make you a poor judge of what the audience thinks of you – because you remember the things that went badly. The negativity bias tends to be exaggerated in high achievers.
According to Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, who wrote "The Confidence Code", "perfectionism is a confidence killer". Learning to relinquish the need to control is essential for Type A personalities.
Of course, as with shyness, being a Type A personality doesn't guarantee that you will be nervous about public speaking. Many motivated, high achievers recognise the importance of public speaking early in their lives and have developed the skills to become outstanding speakers.
Laidback people can also fear public speaking.
Not all of my clients have Type A personalities. Sometimes are the opposite – relaxed, laid-back types who have had a bad public speaking experience in the past because they have been unprepared.
I often have one person like this in a group of ten people, but it is unusual to have more than one or two. They tend to stand out as they are different personality-wise than anyone else in the room.
While a "Type A" personality might read their notes, these people turn up and ramble - because they don't have notes to read!
In theory, this should be the most straightforward problem to solve. All they need to do is spend a bit of time preparing! Unfortunately, it is no easier to convince these people to do the preparation. Although when they do, the results are often impressive! I heard on a podcast once that procrastination and perfectionism are both responses to fear. This made sense to me – my Type A personalities tend towards perfectionism – trying to control the uncontrollable while others procrastinate.
Some people just don't like talking about themselves.
I had a client recently who was going to be introducing an event and the speakers. She 'tested out' her introduction on a small group that I was leading. I noticed that she didn't say anything about herself other than her name. She was working for a voluntary organisation doing some interesting work.
I commented that people might appreciate hearing a few words about what attracted her personally to this organisation. She responded that she didn't like talking about herself. She didn't consider herself interesting, and she didn't want attention focused on her.
Her response reminded me of an artist I once had as a client. Her whole reason for doing the course was to talk more about herself and her work at gallery openings, art exhibitions etc. Over the eight-week course, I got to know her a little better, and she told me that she hated talking about herself. She was an expert in deflecting any attention. I could see why she was popular – most people love talking about themselves. She makes friends easily because she is outgoing and interested in other people.
This only describes a small number of my clients, but it is a recognisable factor for a subset of people.
If you have read this article, I assume it is because you have a fear of public speaking or you know someone who does.
Perhaps you are considering doing a course, and you wonder what the other participants will be like. If you have recognised yourself here, the chances are that you will have a lot in common with others on the course. In fact, this is one of the many benefits of doing a course. It can be hugely reassuring to find that others like you also fear public speaking.
This article suggests that all sorts of people – shy, outgoing, men, women - fear public speaking.
I don't think that personality alone explains the fear of public speaking. I have previously written about five triggers for the fear of public speaking – for example, having had a bad public speaking experience. I suspect that it is the combination of personality type and these triggers which produces an extreme fear of public speaking.
But if I had to pick one attribute that is most likely to be associated with a fear of public speaking, I would say it is perfectionism.
As Winston Churchill once said,
"Perfection is the enemy of progress."
The need to control your environment can be problematic when it comes to public speaking because there is much that you cannot control.
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.