Public Speaking: The Mother Of All Fears

In a much quoted survey of the things people fear most, public speaking came out as the number one fear. Death came third.

So what is fear of public speaking and why does it generate so much fear in so many?

What is fear of public speaking?

Fear of public speaking is an intense and irrational fear of being judged by others when speaking in front of them – or of being embarrassed or humiliated in such situations – causing dread, panic and avoidance.

More accurately, it is not the scrutiny and negative judgements themselves but the sufferer’s own emotional response to them – the feelings of shame, rejection or humiliation.

Sufferers recognise that their fear is excessive or unreasonable but they feel powerless to do anything to change their responses. So the feared situations – such as presentations, wedding speeches, meetings or even one-to-ones – are avoided or else endured with intense anxiety or distress.

In work situations the fear most commonly occurs around formal presentations and meetings. It can then spread out to smaller groups, to conference calls, to informal situations like one-on-one conversations (especially with more senior people) and to things like introducing oneself on a course. It can then even spill into social situations with friends and family.

How it manifests

When sufferers feel that all eyes are upon them – “the spotlight effect” – their acute self-awareness makes it very difficult to focus on what is going on around them, to remember their speech, to read from notes or follow a meeting. Their mind goes foggy or blank. Their distress is further fueled by their efforts to hide or mask their discomfort which may become apparent through blushing, sweating, shaking, twitching, or an inability to speak normally or coherently.

Some of these feelings may be present for some time before the event – weeks and even months beforehand – and may be accompanied by sleeping problems and loss of appetite. Life becomes a nightmare from the moment they know they have to speak. It can feel like a death sentence. Not only that, but the feelings may linger afterwards as the sufferer analyses and ruminates on how they did and how other people may have judged them.

Fear of public speaking is distinguished from shyness by the intense, often debilitating, fear it generates. At its worst it will end in a panic attack. So it’s way beyond shyness or butterflies. This is hardcore fear.

Who does it affect?

Most people with a fear of public speaking are normal, intelligent, happy and well-balanced. They often come across to friends and colleagues as confident and outgoing.

Many people who fear public speaking are very successful, so they have risen to a level in their career where they are more and more called upon to share their knowledge and expertise and lead projects, teams and departments. But in these situations they come across as reserved, disinterested or unenthusiastic because they have got this phobia, this thing.

So it’s very frustrating because a part of them (the rational thinking part) knows that it doesn’t make sense. They know their subject – that’s why they have been asked to talk – and they know the situation is non-threatening. But they nevertheless find that when they are asked to talk in front of a group, another part of them (the irrational unconscious part) drives out rational thought and fear floods in.

It appears to be the more imaginative, creative or artistic people who are more prone to developing phobias. This is because phobias have a lot to do with the misuse of the imagination. So it can affect absolutely anyone.

The cause

Fear of public speaking can be caused by many things. It can be an extension of childhood shyness reinforced by bad experiences of reading aloud in class or presenting work at college or university.

It can also start later in life, often at a time when background stress levels have been raised by other things like relationships or work. Then something happens that the individual can usually cope with but because of the background stress they tip into a mild panic attack. This is frightening and embarrassing. It destroys self-confidence. And it builds into a phobia as the sufferer starts to fear it happening again and begins to panic about panicking – to fear the fear.

At the start it may take some time for people to recognise that they have a phobia. They may mistakenly put it down to excessive shyness. But then the panic starts to occur more frequently and consistently and a pattern emerges. The response is reinforced each time they speak in public and panic, and each time they avoid it and feel relief.

Why does it affect so many so much?

With some phobias – like snakes, heights and sharks – there is some element of real danger. But with public speaking there is no apparent threat. There are no enemy warriors in the room, no charging rhinos.

It seems likely that the fear of public speaking – a fear of humiliation and rejection – is a hangover from our evolutionary history when being accepted by the tribe was essential to our survival. If we did not have their approval we might be cast out. Then our chances of survival by ourselves would be slim. So the thought of rejection by the group generates high anxiety. It’s a primitive survival response that got stuck to wrong kind of thing.

Safety behaviours & avoidance

Safety and avoidance strategies are used by the sufferer to reduce the danger and to control, accommodate and conceal their panic and embarrassment.

Energy and time are used in planning and avoiding the presentation, meeting, call, seminar or speech. Elaborate ways are created to reduce or hide their distress or to produce distractions from it. Sufferers may self-medicate with alcohol. Sickness may be feigned. People and situations may be manipulated. Careers may be blighted: jobs and promotions may be turned down (because they may entail more presenting) or jobs may be left because of their fears of “discovery”.

Many people accommodate their phobia like this for a long time – typically for years, even decades. It is often surprising just how far people get in life and have still managed to avoid public speaking.

But over time these “solutions” become part of the problem, using up time, energy and attention needed for other things. Eventually the avoidance and manipulation becomes too risky – threatening jobs or relationships – or a presentation or speech (usually a wedding or leaving speech) just can’t be avoided. When this happens most sufferers think “enough is enough”. And do something about it. And get help.

Getting help

Things have moved on from old style exposure therapy and there are now a number of very effective solutions available.

These include The Fast Phobia Cure – a remarkable technique from Neuro Linguistic Programming which rapidly changes the patterns that drive the fear. Another relatively new technique is the Emotional Freedom Technique which also provides rapid change. Of the more traditional treatments, Cognitive Therapy – designed to change the way you think about public speaking – is also effective although it is likely to take longer.

You will find more information about these treatments on the internet as well as specialist therapists who can help you.

The important thing is get help because your fear of public speaking can be changed. These days there is no need for anyone to have a phobia.