Why Do So Many People Fear Public Speaking?

Is fear of public speaking a survival instinct?

Posted Nov 08, 2017

For the most part, people hold a few strong opinions about the world and the way things should be. However, when it comes to being asked to speak up in a group, it seems that an innate fear of public speaking takes hold and people lose their voice or misplace their conviction.

While most of us want to be heard, we want to be heard from the corner of the room or from behind our computers—not generally from behind the mic at the podium.

Researchers have given this particular fear a fair amount of attention over the years and it appears that the fear might be one of those evolutionarily embedded fears that keeps us physically safe from harm. Back in the time when voicing a dissenting opinion might mean expulsion from the tribe or the group, it meant that individual survival was at stake. Beasts and brutes, animal or human, were potentially lethal enemies of the isolated individual.

Going along with the group might mean the difference between life and death.

In contemporary times, it would seem that the world would have become a kinder and gentler place. Many of us like to believe that we encourage alternative and diverse thought and that we embrace innovation as a path to progress. However, the fear of speaking up and putting yourself—and your thoughts—on display in front a larger group can instill the same paralyzing fear that might have been felt in prehistoric times. Apparently none of us want to be left behind or cast out for our beliefs.

The fear of public speaking has been compared to social anxiety, although they are not synonymous. True social anxiety is less prevalent than the fear of public speaking, which is present in as many as one in five people according to some statistics. The fear may be “normal,” but its accompanying symptoms may not feel normal and may actually reinforce the fear itself.

When we are anxious, our bodies typically go into fear mode: heart rates amp up, minds might race, and our brains might feel overloaded. Fear decreases our ability to articulate with eloquence or persuasion, or even basic coherence. We might literally “quake in our boots” which sends the signal to others that we are unsure of what we are doing up there in front of the group. If our thoughts are disjointed and our train of thought derails, it’s likely that the members of our audience are among the casualties. We are drawn to people who are self-confident and sure of themselves while we are much less engaged by those who seem to be noncommittal or unsure. If you’re feeling a lot of anxiety about speaking to a group – and your biggest fear is being rejected or discounted, your fear-related behaviors will increase the likelihood that these things will actually occur.

So, is there a secret to getting over this fear?

There are a lot of suggestions for getting over this particular fear and it’s not surprising given how many people experience it. One recent research study (Jackson, Compton, Thornton, & Dimmock, 2017) provided evidence that something called inoculation training might be effective. This is akin to “relapse prevention” in addiction recovery models. The trick is to “inoculate” yourself against a “worst case scenario” happening by being prepared to cope with or combat the event. In the study, they included a list of specific fears that accompany public speaking anxiety and provided facts and data that contradicted the fears or showed evidence that the fear was out of proportion to the situation.

Once you’ve imagined the worst case scenario, walked yourself mentally through your “best possible response,” or gathered information that negates or minimizes the possible fallout if the “worst case scenario” comes true, it appears that the actual effect of the fear is minimized considerably.

If you find yourself getting a bit jittery when asked to speak before a group, remind yourself that banishment from your tribe is unlikely to result from even a poorly delivered speech. Remember that most of us are more worried about ourselves to waste energy worrying that much about another. And if you’re worried that your nerves will trip you up, remind yourself that a little bit of anxiety is actually a healthy thing, use that extra adrenaline to pump yourself up, not beat yourself down.

Judging from what's shown on television these days that passes for "reality" or "news," the fear of speaking up in a group should have lost its power over us by now!

References

Jackson, B., Compton, J., Thornton, A. L., & Dimmock, J. A. (2017). Re-thinking anxiety: Using inoculation messages to reduce and reinterpret public speaking fears. PLoS ONE12(1): e0169972. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0169972

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