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Why Are We Scared of Public Speaking?

Understanding the roots of this common fear can help us conquer it faster.

Key points

  • There are many benefits to being a good public speaker.
  • Fear of public speaking is very common, affecting about 25% of people.
  • The fear may be caused by physiology, beliefs, specific situations, or lack of skill.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Communicating your ideas clearly and presenting them openly in a public forum is an essential component of success across several domains of life. Being a good public speaker can help you advance your career, grow your business, and form strong collaborations. It can help you promote ideas and move people to action on issues that affect them directly and society at large. To do any of these things well requires a fair amount of standing in front of an audience and delivering a pitch, an idea, or a body of work. And sometimes the only thing that stands between you and your audience is fear.

Glossophobia—a really cool and geeky name for the fear of public speaking—appears when you are performing or expecting to perform an oral presentation or a speech in front of other people. Fear of public speaking is frequently but incorrectly cited as people’s biggest fear. Fear of public speaking is often not people’s biggest fear; there are many other things that people are really scared of. Nevertheless, fear of public speaking is very common; approximately 25 percent of people report experiencing it.

While some people experience a debilitating form of glossophobia, even a mild form can have devastating effects. Fear of public speaking can prevent you from taking risks to share your ideas, to speak about your work, and to present your solutions to problems that affect many people—and as a result, it can affect how much you grow personally and professionally, and how much impact you can have. At the same time, any negative public speaking experiences will make it less likely that you will speak in public in the future—fear teaches you to protect yourself from risky situations.

Why Are We Afraid of Public Speaking?

Fear of public speaking is not so much related to the quality of a speech as it is to how the speaker feels, thinks, or acts when faced with speaking in public. There are many reasons why people become afraid when having to speak in public. The theories exploring the fear of public speaking have identified four contributing factors:

1. Physiology

Fear and anxiety involve the arousal of the autonomic nervous system in response to a potentially threatening stimulus. When confronted with a threat, our bodies prepare for battle. This hyperarousal leads to the emotional experience of fear, and it interferes with our ability to perform comfortably in front of audiences. Eventually, it prevents people from pursuing opportunities for public speaking.

Some researchers suggest that there are people who generally experience higher anxiety across different situations, and are therefore more prone to feel anxious about speaking in public as well. People who are predisposed to feeling anxious find it more challenging to master their anxiety and conquer their fear of public speaking and will opt to avoid it. For other people, the anxiety is limited to public speaking situations, but the physiological signs of fear they experience as they anticipate, prepare, and perform in public are similar.

Moreover, some people experience what researchers call anxiety sensitivity, or the fear of fear. Anxiety sensitivity means that in addition to being worried about public speaking, people are worried about their anxiety about public speaking and how their anxiety will affect their ability to perform in challenging communication situations. So, along with worrying about whether they will accomplish their objectives with their speech, people with high anxiety sensitivity also worry that they will be overwhelmingly anxious in front of their audience, and they will come across as a shaky speaker.

2. Thoughts

Another factor involves people’s beliefs about public speaking and about themselves as speakers. The fear often arises when people overestimate the stakes of communicating their ideas in front of others, viewing the speaking event as a potential threat to their credibility, image, and chance to reach an audience. Negative views of oneself as a speaker (I am not good at speaking in front of crowds, I am not a good public speaker, I am boring, etc.) can also raise anxiety and augment the fear of speaking in public.

Some theories make the distinction between a performance orientation and a communication orientation. Performance orientation means you view public speaking as something that requires special skills, and you see the role of the audience as judges who are evaluating how good of a presenter you are. In contrast, communication orientation means that the main focus is on expressing your ideas, presenting information, or telling your story. For people with this orientation, the objective is to get through to their audience the same way they get through to people during everyday conversations.

Think about this in reverse: If you view any conversation that you have in the presence of another person as a form of “public” speaking, you have enough evidence that you can express yourself clearly and communicate effectively. You would then take the same approach to public speaking events where the focus is simply on sharing ideas and information. However, when the focus shifts from being heard and understood to being evaluated, the anxiety tends to be higher.

3. Situations

While there are people who by nature tend to be more anxious, or people who don’t think they are good at public speaking, there are certain situations that are likely to make most of us more anxious when presenting in a public forum.

  • Lack of experience. As with anything else, experience builds confidence. When you don’t have a lot of stage hours under your belt, you are more likely to experience fear of public speaking.
  • Degree of evaluation. When there is a real or imagined evaluation component to the situation, the fear is stronger. If you are speaking in front of a group of people who have the evaluation forms ready to fill out, you may feel more anxious.
  • Status difference. If you are about to speak in front of people of higher status (e.g., people at your workplace in higher positions, or groups of accomplished professionals in your line of work), you may feel a higher dose of fear tingling through your body.
  • New ideas. If you are sharing ideas that you have not yet shared in public, you may worry more about how people will receive them. When your public appearance involves presenting something new, you may feel more uncomfortable stating your position, taking questions from the audience, or dealing with those audience members who try to poke holes.
  • New audiences. You may already have experience speaking in public and presenting to familiar audiences. You may, for instance, be used to speaking in front of professionals in your area of expertise. Fear may arise, however, when the target audience shifts. If you are standing in front of an audience that is very different from the people you usually speak to, your confidence may be a little shaky.

4. Skills

Finally, another factor that contributes to the fear of public speaking is how skilled you are in this area. While many people consider themselves naturally good speakers, there is always room for growth. The people who work on their skills, instead of relying on natural talent, are the speakers who stand out the most. There are many different approaches to enhancing this skill set and increasing competence in public speaking. Increased competence leads to increased confidence, which is an effective antidote to fear. Nevertheless, confidence alone does not translate into effective public speaking.

The many benefits of sharing information and ideas in public definitely outweigh the need to protect ourselves from the horror of having to speak in front of others. The next logical question is: How do we conquer this fear? Luckily, there are many approaches that work well, both in terms of building skills and boosting confidence.

Read more about how to conquer the fear of public speaking here.

LinkedIn image: fizkes/Shutterstock


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