FEAR OF PUBLIC SPEAKING

The fear of public speaking (glossphobia) is the second most common fear in adults according to a 2001 Gallup™ poll.  Forty percent of people said that they have this fear, with the split between men (37%) and women (44%) being about the same.  It is more common in younger people than in the over 60 crowd.  And about 5% – 9% have a severe enough fear level that it is classified as a social anxiety disorder. 

Causes of this fear are complex and theoretical.  Unlike other fears, the fear of public speaking is not based on a perceived threat of death (height, spiders, snakes, flying, hospitals, germs, fire, lightening, drowning, etc.).  Tangible things or creatures are unlikely to trigger it.  Instead, it is created by thoughts.  But, if you think about it, all fears are nothing more than thoughts.  The fear of spiders is not the existence of the spider, but the thought of what the spider might do. 

Most other common fears have perceived physical consequences, i.e., you could die, get sick, or become injured.  The consequences of social fears, such as public speaking, are entirely psychological.  This makes the recovery steps slightly different and involves more hands-on exercises.  This increases the resistance to practice sessions. 

The following is a list of the most commonly associated consequences that stem from the fear of public speaking:

  • Embarrassment
  • Ridicule
  • Reduced Self-Esteem
  • Failure  

Each one of these emotional outcomes is discussed below, along with a potential stress reduction strategy.  For a more general treatment method or solution, check out the Solve It” section on this site.

A. Fear of Embarrassment. This is a feeling of discomfort, disdain, and awkwardness in sufficient intensity as to increase heart rate and blood pressure. Other physical manifestations include blushing, shaking, freezing, and a quivering voice.  Despite these physiological responses, learning that embarrassment is actually a good thing has the potential of reducing stress. 

              Can you name any other positive results from being embarrassed?

Answer: 

1.  Embarrassment creates trust from your audience.  Studies have found that embarrassment evolved as a defense against being devalued by other people.

2.  Embarrassment creates sympathy from your audience.  This means you have their attention and they will listen.  Motivational speakers identify audience’s attention and willingness to listen was the two most important elements in a good speech.  One blush or a slightly nervous voice is like hitting a triple in baseball. 

3.  Being embarrassed is normal.  Psycopaths and sociopaths often lack emotions like shame, guilt, and embarrassment. 

  1. Having Impairments/Unusual Physical Characteristics.  People who stutter are often afraid to speak because of the impediment.   Wrong.  If you stutter, you should stutter louder and with sufficient volume that everyone can hear.  Use it as a badge of courage.  It announces:

I have conquered a great impediment!  What have you done?”

A law school professor said: “most people in the jury box do not want to be there.  They will tune everyone out most of the time.”  You get their attention with things that are out-of-the-ordinary. 

    • A person with a stutter, as discussed above, is something out-of-the-ordinary.  
    • A witness, who is a soft talker, will be heard and admired for his courage when you put a microphone in front of his whispering voice.
    • A witness who is extremely short will be noticed when they walk into the courtroom. Doing something unexpected like the witness having a loud booming voice would be the icing on the cake. 
    • A person 8 feet tall will always be noticed.

The take-away is that if you are different in any way YOU HAVE AN ADVANTAGE. 

USE IT, DISPLAY IT, AND OWN IT

    • If you are smart, do not dumb down.
    • If you are attractive, do not tarnish what nature has done.
    • If you are tall, do not slouch. 
    • If you are very short, do not wear lifts.
    • If you are unsteady on your feet, use a cane.
    • A big nose is a sign of royalty. (European)
    • Big Ears is a sign of vitality and courage (Chinese)
    • Big Eyes means beauty, warmth, and passion. (All cultures)
  1. Stop worrying about what other people think. You have no clue as to what other people are thinking, and your assumptions will almost always be wrong.  For example, try and recall when you were in the audience and someone made a mistake.  Did you think less of them?  Of course not.  

Here is a training method to combat this problem.  At home write down your most negative thoughts associated with public speaking.  Next to each negative thought write down in less than 8 words an advantage from that thought assuming it to be true.  If you cannot think of any, here is a sample list to help you in coming up with your own.  

a.  You’re stupid 

  • Albert Einstein was called stupid.
  • Henry Ford had an 8th grade education.
  • Steve Jobs never finished college.
  • Zuckerberg dropped out of college after 2 years.
  • Larry Ellison dropped out of college twice.

b.  Hey 4 Eyes 

  • People who wear glasses read a lot and must be smart.
  • The 4.7 billion dollar Hubble Telescope wears glasses. 
  • I can see behind me with the reflections. 
  • My eye sight is 6/6. 
  • I’m not vain and proud of it. 

c.  You’re Ugly

  • Ugly people have personalities.
  • Ugly people are more successful.
  • Ugly people age better.
  • Ugly people are not afraid of being honest.
  • Ugly people are less gullible.
  • People are more comfortable around you.

d.   You’re Fat. 

  • I have perfected my taste abilities.
  • This drug does not affect my appetite.
  • I’m immune to cold weather. 
  • My energy storage is bigger than yours.
  • Fat people don’t have rheumatoid arthritis.

Every time you have that negative thought, remember the scripted answer.  Do not say it out-loud. It is meant to be directed at your internal negative thoughts. 

3.  Develop a Thicker Skin.  This is one of those things that is always easier said than done.  It is up there with “Try and Be Smarter.”   There are many training methods and videos on “How to Develop a Thick Skin.”  You will find hundreds of hints, methods, and suggestions, including YouTube™ videos.  Pick the ones that intrigue you.  This is very similar to “stop worrying about what other people think,” as discussed above. 

  1. Don’t Calm Down. Studies have shown that those speakers who intentionally try to calm down end up coming across as low-energy and not excited about their topics.  A public speaker trying to implement meditation techniques during a speech will not leave a favorable impression.  Never take drugs or alcohol before a speech.  

B. Fear of Ridicule. Ridicule is to make fun of someone or mock someone in a negative way. This sometimes happens during younger school years. If it happened to you, it will be difficult to purge those memories from your head.  Fortunately, ridicule almost never happens during adult years.  But that does not stop your head from coming up with negative thoughts. 

There is a technique that every comedian uses to squelch hecklers.  It is a training that they all must learn in order to keep control over the audience.  You rarely get hecklers in your speeches.  However, there is one heckler that will always be with you – yourself and those negative thoughts.  The training can help with those in-your-head hecklers. 

YouTube™ has many training videos on the subject.  Most of them, like most comedians, use foul language.  However, one video by Comedy Teacher Gerry Katzman is instructive.  It does not use foul language and gives you a flavor of how to handle hecklers.  The put-down comments taught in those videos are to be said out-loud, but only in the privacy of your own home.   Saying the words out-loud with great volume and feeling cements those responses in your memory cells.  It takes at least a dozen times on different days before it takes hold.  When coupled with a reward, it increases the chances of being retained.  

These heckler put-down techniques are not to be said out-loud or practiced in public.  They are only used to quiet your negative-thoughts.  You are not a comedian, and employing those techniques without extensive practice is not recommended.  You could practice at an open mic night at a local comedy club. However, if you are brave enough to do that, you probably don’t have a public speaking problem.  

C. Fear of Reduced Self-Esteem. Self-Esteem is confidence in your own abilities and self-worth.  This is the elephant in the room for all social anxiety disorders.  True self esteem does not come over-night.  It is developed over many years.  Only you know if you have a high or low self-esteem.  The smartest person in the world may have low self-esteem and consider themselves dumb.  Conversely, a person with a low IQ may have a high self-esteem, believing he or she is the best. 

Self-esteem is a value that comes from within. It is what you think about yourself, not what other people think about you.  Because it takes years to develop, everyone fiercely protects it and vigorously avoids doing things that deflate it.   

Unfortunately, the mind automatically creates negative thoughts whenever fear pops up.  Fear causes negative thoughts.  Positive thoughts are created whenever joy is involved.  Self-esteem is the difference between the fear and joy within you.  This is the main reason why joy is so important in coping with fear. 

Both self-esteem and negative thoughts are internal values.  Therefore, negative thoughts will always deflate self-esteem.  Dr. Daniel Amen, a world famous psychiatrist, has lectured and written books on ANTs, i.e., Automatic Negative Thoughts.  He teaches you how to identify ANTs and how to distinguish them from real circumstances that warrant caution.  This knowledge is so important that it should be a standard school topic taught in all elementary, middle school, and high schools. 

Reading and watching videos on conquering ANTs is probably the greatest thing you can do to reduce stress in your life. 

D. Fear of Failure. This is the easiest negative thought that you can vanquish. All it takes is preparation.  The more you know about the subject, the less negative thoughts you will have about making a mistake.  If you do not have time to prepare, such as a politician at a press conference, or a door-to-door salesperson, you must learn the skill of impromptu speaking.  This is exceedingly difficult, but once mastered, is an enormous stress reducer in public speaking. 

Impromptu Speech Training.   There are many courses that teach how to master impromptu speaking.  An internet search will lead you to how, where, and what to do to learn this valuable tool.  YouTube™ has many training videos on this technique.  A sample video is by Sean Michael.

E. Handling Unexpected Things That Come Up. Knowing how to handle the unexpected will reduce your anxiety.  It is human nature to fear more of what we don’t know, as opposed to what we do know. 

On March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt left us with a very poignant and oft quoted gem of wisdom —“The only thing we have to fear is…fear itself.” 

The following are scenarios that illustrate how to handle these unexpected occurrences during a public speach:

1. Someone Laughs. If someone laughs during your talk, do not immediately think that they are laughing at you.  That would be a false, negative thought.  It could be that you said something funny.  For example:

An 8 year old Mormon boy was giving a talk to church members about the angel Moroni.  But he said “angel Macaroni.”  Everyone laughed, and the boy was embarrassed.  However, they truly loved that boy. What they were laughing at was a mental picture of a giant macaroni with angel wings, not at the boy. 

Smile, as if you agree with the humor, or ignore it and proceed.

2. Someone Walks Out. There are many reasons why people leave a presentation and most of them have nothing to do with you or your presentation.  Here are some potential reasons.

    • They have something pressing going on in their life that needs to be immediately addressed.

    • They may be present because of a requirement. Being there against their wishes is the number one reason for people to leave early.  If they were sitting in a seat near an exit, it’s a clue that they had intended on leaving early.  If they get up and leave, smile.  You know exactly why they left.

    • Did they just receive a cell phone call?  Most people who accept a call during a meeting only accept important calls.  They may be leaving so as to not interrupt your presentation.

    • Is your topic controversial?  Caution – if you are a beginning public speaker and you take on a controversial topic, you are far braver than most experienced speakers.  It would be safer to pass on such speeches, until you’re comfortable with public speaking. 

If you decide to give a speech on a controversial topic, you need to prepare for all kinds of negative reactions, including “the walk out.”  Instead of fretting over their departure, you should smile. Those kinds of people can make your presentation difficult, and the greatest thing to help you is to have the agitators leave.  This is true even if it is 50% of your audience.  The best thing to do is to ignore it.  Do not ask them to come back, and do not make a sarcastic comment.  The worst thing that could happen is to have those disruptors return.

3. Someone Asks for the Mic.  If someone comes up to the podium and asks for the microphone, never-ever-ever relinquish control.  You have no idea what insulting or derogatory nonsense they may spew from their mouths. 

4. Someone Jeers or Boos. This sometimes occurs during a controversial speech at high schools and colleges.  A group of agitators may choose to drown you out with boos.  The best way to handle this is to discuss security measures with the people hosting the speech.  If the agitators are rowdy and too many for the security to handle, you must have an exit strategy.  One experienced comedian had the following method for dealing with a large group of obnoxious people: 

He took out his key chain containing 5 to 10 keys and jingled the keys at the hecklers, looking them in the eyes with a hypnotic stare.  Calmly and slowly, he would jingle keys at each of the hecklers.  When the audience began to wonder what was going on, he slowly said, “Shiny,    Shiny    Shiny,” with a strong accent on the “nē,” as if hypnotizing a pack of wolves.  This would usually bring down the house with laughter.  Each time the obnoxious ones interrupted the comedian, he would grab his keys and jingle them with a smile without saying anything.  About the third or fourth time, members of the audience began grabbing their keys, exhibiting the jingle dance. 

Be careful! This may require the security team to come in to protect the agitators. 

5. Someone Falls Asleep. There are many reasons for people to fall asleep during a presentation.  Some have worked long hours and are tired.  Some have just finished lunch.  This is why you should do everything possible to speak in the morning.  If it has to be afternoon, it should be at after 2 p.m.  A golden rule is to never do speeches after lunch in a warm room. 

6.  Other Issues.   Another problem has to do with the topic.  Some topics will put nearly anyone to sleep.  Take for example, “The Asymptotic Relationship Between Converging Variables.”  

Topics, like that, also point to another problem – do not use words that are understood by less than 90% of your audience. And stay away from repeated use of military acronyms.  If the listeners do not understand the words used, they will tune you out.  Once they tune you out, it is almost impossible to get them back.

Do not read your speech.  It indicates that you are not prepared.  But worse yet, it increases your talking speed.  Speakers should use between 1.5 and 2.5 words per second maximum.  Get your cell phone out and talk at the speed of 1 word per second.  You will find that this is – v   e   r   y – slow.  Next try 2 words per second.  This is just right.  Now try 3 words per second.  This is way too fast.  The 1.5 to 2 words-per-second tempo is what most news broadcasters use.  

Finally, do not become monotone.  That is like placing a sleeping spell over the audience.

All speeches should be less than 20 minutes in length.  Ted™ Talks have a limit of 18 minutes for a reason. 

Tell a story with your words or use real life examples or analogies.  This is exceedingly difficult to do and can take hours to come up with each example or analogy. 

Do not present any more than 3 main points. Two is actually better.  Listeners will tune you out if they have to keep track of multiple points. 

If you have the ability to tell a joke, then sprinkle a little humor into the talk.  Humor is a great ice breaker. But it is more than just words.  It needs proper timing, rhythm, and facial expressions.  A poor joke is worse than no joke.  As such, practice all jokes with an friend or spouse and demand honest answers.  If it doesn’t come across as great, then don’t do it.  It takes an incredible amount of work and practice to be a comedian. 

7. Someone Is on Their Cell Phone. People on cells phones create chaos.  It is a numbers game.   If you see a dozen or more people talking or texting on their cell phones try this trick:

Have a person in the audience call you after you have flashed a secret signal.  Have your ringer set to its highest volume.  Then raise your finger to the audience and answer the cell phone.  Begin talking on the phone in a loud voice, walk back and forth behind the microphone, and chuckle once in a while.   Then after about 10 seconds, hang up, re-approach the microphone and look at the audience.  Then say this: “How many of you found my telephone call annoying?”  When the audience agrees, you then reply, “Me too.”  

Do not point out or embarrass those using their cell phone.  They know who they are, and they also know that you were talking to them. 

F. Logistics. These are things that should be handled by the organizers at every venue. It can be a simple form on what to do when the power goes out, or if there is a fire.  Contact telephone numbers are needed in case of a medical or other emergency.  The availability of rest rooms, drinking water, and food facilities are needed if the presentation is long.  These logistics are not something that normally involves the speaker.  But, if any of this information concerns you, ask the organizer for details.

 G.  Audience Size. In small audiences it is important to look at as many of the participants during the presentation as possible.   You need to have eye contact with each individual for several sentences so that they know you are talking to them.

In large audiences, the procedure is completely different.  Take a look at the photo above.  If you feel nervous, you are normal.  Before you take the microphone, look at the audience and pick out two people that look like your best friend, grandparents or someone you know, trust, and love.  One person should to your right and the other to your left.  Blur out everyone else so that you are talking to your best friend.

Can you trick you mind into blurring people out?  Absolutely, we do it all the time.  People talk during a music concert by blocking out the music.  People who move into a home near railroad tracks hear the train noises including the blasting the horns at each crossings.  But after a couple of weeks, the train sounds completely fade away.  Pilots see tiny dark blips of other airplanes off in the distance while the rests of us see only clear blue skies.  It is a mild form of artificial synesthesia.  

Unfortunately, being able to blur out the audience does not come over-night.  It takes weeks of practice not days.  But, like skiing, once you do it, it stays with you. And, just like skiing, practice, practice and more practice is the key.  When you are in a park, find a bench to sit on.  Look around and focus on two trees and try to blur out everything else.   In a restaurant focus on two objects and intentionally blur out the people.  The crème de la crème of practice is public speaking.  First try watching videos of speakers addressing large audiences.  Focus in on one person and blur out all others. 

You will find that it may be easier than you thought because your mind is blocking things out subconsciously all the time.  The reason it takes a lot of practice is because when you are in front of a large audience, the negative thoughts department, keeps sending you the following signal:

You must look at everyone to find those who do not like you. 

That is why you need to practice.  There are many public speaking seminars and courses, such as a Dale Carnegie™ Course  and Toastmasters™.

H. Social Media Effect.  Social Media has been the most devastating blow against self-esteem by providing an endless stream of critics and out-and-out false allegations.  There may be many positive statement on social media as well.   BUT, it is not a contest.   If you hear a singer make a mistake with a single discordant note in the wrong key, your memory of that singer will be of that one single note as opposed to the thousands of good notes in the song.   The person attacked by a critic will automatically go to the worst of the comments over-looking the hundreds of positive statements. 

Many say that social media is an addictive trap.  The Addiction Center reported that children are an At-Risk Group concluding that 27% spend more than 3 hours per day on these sites.   Gallup™ reported that the fear of public speaking when down from 45% in 1998 to 40% in 2001.  The social media platforms began in 2004 and did not become widespread until 2010.  In 2017 the National Social Anxiety Center reported that 73% of the population struggles with the fear of public speaking.  It is possible that social media may have played a role for this dramatic increase (40% to 73%).   Because different polling companies use different methods, it would be a better comparison if Gallup™ updated their survey.  

I. Personality Trait Connection. The personality types most likely to have a fear of public speaking are D-Types, followed by C-types.  Here is a list of some famous people who are afraid of public speaking: Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), Tiger Woods, Richard Branson, Prince Harry, Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Warren Buffett, Joel Osteen, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jay Z, Jackie Chan, Mark Zuckerberg, Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, Beyoncé, Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, Samuel Jackson, Harrison Ford, Jennifer Lawrence, Rihanna, Emma Watson, Renee Zellweger, Sigmund Freud, Sir Laurence Olivier, and the list is extensive.