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Glossophobia is the technical name given to public speaking anxiety. The fear of speaking in front of an audience is real and there are varying levels of severity. In defining this term, we must distinguish it from the more general condition of fearing any social situation. A social phobic is one who fears all social situations and becomes anxious and nervous in them. Whereas the public speaking phobic generally becomes anxious and nervous in public speaking situations only. Research carried out by Heimberg et al. (1990) also found that the social phobic is more anxious and depressed generally, making the public speaking experience even worse. Simply put, the social phobic is a public speaking phobic, but the public speaking phobic is not a social phobic.

Is the fear of public speaking real?

According to the National Social Anxiety Center, the most common phobia ahead of death, spiders, or heights is the fear of public speaking. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that public speaking anxiety, or glossophobia, affects about 73% of the population (National Social Anxiety Center, 2016). This is a common claim that is thrown out there, but do people really fear public speaking more than death? Would they rather jump off a cliff than deliver a presentation?

Berkun, the author of the amazing book the confessions of a public speaker, argues that this claim is futile and based on weak research. Who were surveyed and how credible their answers are is questionable (Berkun, 2011). In addition, Tsaousides (2017) supports Berkun, as he claims the claim of public speaking being more feared than death is actually false.

glossophobia

Whether we say it is more feared than death or not, it is without a doubt something that affects us all. Yes, us all. Berkun (2011) brings some interesting quotes and facts about some famous people who spoke or performed in front of the public all the time:

  • “There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars.” —Mark Twain
  • “I’ve never gotten over what they call stage fright. I go through it every show.” – Elvis Presley
  • Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Margaret Thatcher, Barbara Walters, Johnny Carson, Barbra Streisand, and Ian Holm have all reported fears of public communication.

Does that make you feel better now?

Why is public speaking anxiety so common?

A lot of research has been done over the years to figure out the reasons for public speaking anxiety for example Daly et al. (1989), Bippus and Daly (1999) and Pribyl et al. (2001). This conveys that it isn’t a new phenomenon. People have wondered why, researched and suffered for decades. In fact, Burken (2011) mentions that this is something that has always existed and it is natural extinct. The brain tells the body to feel weak in such a position – alone, unarmed and facing an audience. The lone sheep is the one in danger and will get attacked and probably lose. It is common sense, logic and therefore natural to fear being in such positions.

public speaking anxiety

Unlike the lone sheep scenario, a presentation is not life threatening (one would hope), so why the same fear? Research (by aforementioned researchers) has suggested a number of reasons people fear public speaking. Here we will explore some of those.

Performance

How will I perform on the day? Will my lack of presentation experience and skills harm my performance? All of these questions and more revolve around and inside the head of the public speaker. Usually before the presentation itself in the preparation stage. This comes from the unfamiliarity with the role and the lack of presentation experience. The only way to solve this would be to practice. The more you practice and put yourself in such situations, the more comfortable you will be. Also, preparation will go a long way when it comes to dealing with this and just about any concern you have with presentation really. Many who suffer from public speaking anxiety or perform poorly in them will admit they did not prepare enough or at all. Then who is to blame?

Self-presentation

Another trait in human nature is that we worry too much about what other people think of us. We fear making mistakes and, as a result, possible humiliation. Why is this specific feeling in public speaking only? The same fear of being judged, criticised, mocked, making embarrassing mistakes or boring people also exist in everyday situations you already place yourself in e.g. when talking to family, friends, colleagues or when communicating via the written word by using email or writing on the internet. In these situation, you also open yourself up to criticism, judgment and mockery. Then why is the fear of public speaking so heightened?

Evaluation

This one is closely linked to the previous reason, self-presentation. The fact that we feel we are being evaluated and closely watched by a tough crowd and an unforgiving audience. If it is a class presentation, it will be graded and it will stick with you forever (until the next one), but if it is not, it is going to be a presentation, which people will forget and the only one who will remember it will be you. The only scenario in which it will be remembered will be if it was great! And in that case, congrats!

public speaking anxiety

Audience members are there because they want to learn, be entertained, be motivated or some just want to go home (because they are tired not because of you). They are not paying attention to the mistakes you make, they will most often miss them (Burken (2011) mentions we utter on average 15,000 words a day and commit numerous mistakes and most if not all of those are unnoticed). They will react to the mistakes the way you do. Be cool. Mistakes can even act as a stimulator of the presentation – it can wake up the crowd, make the presentation more interesting and surely make for an interesting story.

Rigid rules

Another thing to keep in mind here are the rigid rules. Some public speaking courses and books will give you a step by step guide on how to deliver the perfect presentation. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with them, but it must also be stressed to the students that creativity is much more praiseworthy than uniformity. Guides on how to start a presentation or end one should be used as and when they fit. They should not be religiously followed as if your success and failure will depend on them. These rigid rules will result in a rigid presentation that has probably been delivered by many others before you. However, the greatest harm is that you will start to worry too much about doing those things “the way they are supposed to be done”. And this will add unnecessary pressure on you.

The purpose of this blog post was to highlight the reasons for public speaking anxiety. In the process, some solutions to overcome it were suggested here and there. However, these will be discussed in detail in a future post. To give you a glimpse, I will list some ways on how you can deal with glossophobia. Until next time!

  • Prepare & practise to be comfortable and confident and not perfect
  • Public speaking courses
  • Embrace the energy of fear
  • The audience is your friend

Reference list

Berkun, S. (2011). Confessions of a public speaker. Farnham: O’reilly.

Bippus, A.M. and Daly, J.A. (1999). ‘What do people think causes stage fright?: Naïve attributions about the reasons for public speaking anxiety’. Communication Education48(1), pp.63-72.

Daly, J.A., Vangelisti, A.L., Neel, H.L. and Cavanaugh, P.D. (1989). ‘Pre‐performance concerns associated with public speaking anxiety’, Communication Quarterly, 37(1), pp.39-53.

Heimberg, R.G., Hope, D.A., Dodge, C.S. and Becker, R.E. (1990). ‘DSM-III-R subtypes of social phobia: Comparison of generalized social phobics and public speaking phobics.’ The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 178(3), pp.172–179.

National Social Anxiety Center. (2016). PUBLIC SPEAKING ANXIETY. [Online]. NSAC. Available from: https://nationalsocialanxietycenter.com/social-anxiety/public-speaking-anxiety/ [Accessed 11 October 2019].

Pribyl, C.B., Keaten, J. and Sakamoto, M. (2001). ‘The effectiveness of a skills‐based program in reducing public speaking anxiety’. Japanese Psychological Research43(3), pp.148-155.

Tsaousides, T. (2017). Why Are We Scared of Public Speaking?. [Online]. Psychology Today. Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/smashing-the-brainblocks/201711/why-are-we-scared-public-speaking [Accessed 11 October 2019].