With Halloween upon us, I thought it was timely to look at why a fear of public speaking is so common!
My Toastmasters Club, Talking Heads, has a Mark Twain quote on our website, "There are two types of speakers - those that are nervous and those that are liars".
You have probably seen headlines reporting surveys showing that people fear public speaking more than death, and you may be familiar with the Jerry Seinfeld quote:
“According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Of course, Jerry Seinfeld is really highlighting that it is silly to believe that people fear public speaking more than death. I am not the first person to point out that if you held a gun to someone’s head and told them to speak, they would be quick to oblige!
I am not going to quote statistics here because they are contradictory and I am sure they are influenced by how questions are framed. Nevertheless, I know for a fact that a fear of public speaking is very common because I have met so many people who share the same fear I once had.
There are a number of theories about why we fear public speaking. Most of these theories are not mutually exclusive.
A fear of public speaking may have an evolutionary basis. When we get really nervous it triggers a fight-flight-freeze response. See this article for a good explanation of “freeze” which is typically what happens to us in public speaking. These are all responses which can aid survival in the face of danger. But why would we perceive public speaking as dangerous?!
I have seen a couple of different explanations for this:
Fear of being judged
I survey my course participants before they start the course, and a common concern they have is looking nervous because it makes them feel weak or self-conscious.
In my experience people almost always feel more nervous than they look. I have a blog article coming soon on this topic. And even if I can tell someone is nervous, that is just a sign to me that they care!
The other thing to remember is that you are probably being judged less than you think. Most of us feel a bit self-conscious when the attention is focused on us. But the Spotlight Effect is a cognitive bias which describes the tendency to overestimate how much other people notice how you look and act. As an audience member you probably form some judgements of a speaker but you are more focused on what they are saying and what is in it for you. Or you may even be thinking about other things! The point is that we overestimate how much attention people are really paying to us as a speaker. For an excellent discussion of how the spotlight effect relates to public speaking see this article.
Another set of theories focus on how our negative or self-defeating thoughts can fuel a fear of public speaking. Some of these include:
Confusing fear with excitment
This theory suggests that initial physical reactions to public speaking are not about fear but are merely the result of our bodies preparing to perform. This theory fits with the idea that a little nervous energy will enhance our performance. Fear and excitement are closely related and produce similar reactions in our body. Think of an athlete on the start line of an important race – they will feel a mix of excitement and nerves which in turn produces the adrenalin needed to run fast!
When it comes to public speaking, this adrenalin can also be helpful in small doses. But if our brain interprets our feelings as fear instead of excitement or anticipation, this produces a more severe physical response which is unhelpful.
This is not a separate theory but helps explain why some people seem to react to stressful situations than others. Highly anxious people appear to be prone to produce more cortisol under stress than the average person.
Notice that these theories have something in common – the fear is out of proportion to the ‘danger’. Of course, we already know this. Like any phobia, Glossophobia, another term for fear of public speaking, is not rationale. But knowing this doesn’t reduce the fear! On the other hand, I strongly believe that having some understanding of what is behind our fear and knowing that others share this fear is a good first step to addressing it.
Article written by Catherine Syme
I strongly believe that anyone can manage their nerves and become a better public speaker with the right support.