10 Causes of Speech Anxiety that Create Fear of Public Speaking
Want an attention-grabber the next time you give a speech? How about this: Fear of public speaking ranks far above death as the fear people most often mention! (For powerful techniques to relax even if you have just 5 minutes to spare, download my free cheat sheet, "How to Calm Your Nerves before Speaking.")
The Prevalence of Fear of Public Speaking
To be fair, heights, insects, and deep water also rank above death in the most commonly cited survey. That's from The Book of Lists, which in 1977 reproduced a 1973 survey by Bruskin Associates.* Here's the full ranking of the "14 worst human fears": 1. Speaking before a group 2. Heights 3. Insects and Bugs 4. Financial Problems 5. Deep Water. 6. Sickness 7. Death 8. Flying 9.Loneliness 10. Dogs 11. Driving in a Car 12. Darkness 13. Elevators. 14. Escalators.
So if you fear speaking in public more than riding an escalator, you're certainly not alone. Even when you consider that public speaking is only mentioned more often than death, and not really feared more, speech anxiety is certainly on a lot of people's hit list of things they'd rather not do. But what specifically causes this type of social anxiety?
Speech Anxiety Among Professionals
As a speech coach, I work constantly with professionals who struggle with fear of public speaking. From years of working with these people all of whom have the courage to face their anxiety and overcome it, I've created a "Top 10" list of reasons speakers and presenters struggle with stage fright. Here, incidentally, is how to rescue yourself if you have a full-blown panic attack.
This is that list, along with ways to beat each one of these speaking horrors:
1. Self-consciousness in front of large groups. This is probably the most frequently named reason people feel performance anxiety while speaking. It's very common for a speech coach to hear: "I'm fine talking to small groups. But when it's    people (or a similarly "large" number), I get really anxious." Two strategies will help: (1) Remember that the people in a sizable audience are exactly the same ones you talk to individually, and (2) Concentrate on having a conversation with your listeners. You'll be at your best in every way.
2. Fear of appearing nervous. I'm not sure if this is what FDR meant when he said "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." But you may fear that you'll look fearful. Then you may make a leap of logic and tell yourself that once the audience notices your nervousness, everyone will realize that you don't really know your topic. Of course, the two aren't linked at all. If you see that a speaker is nervous, what do you think? It's probably, "Poor speaker! . . . I'd be nervous up there too." If anything, your audience will extend you sympathy. So believe it.
3. Concern that others are judging you. The tough love message concerning this fear is that people really don't care about you. They're in the audience to get something out of this lecture, presentation, speech, or talk. They sincerely would like their time to have been well spent in coming here. You can also console yourself with the knowledge that watching a speaker fail is embarrassing for all present. That means that audiences are actually pulling for you.
4. Past failures. Public speaking anxiety is often learned behavior. You failed at some point in an important or high-profile speaking situation, and the seed was planted. Surely this evil tree will bear more fruit the next season! Of course, if you know your stuff and have done your homework, there's absolutely no reason something in the past will occur again. Not, that is, unless you tell yourself it will, and subconsciously get ready for it. Plan to succeed instead.
5. Poor or insufficient preparation. See #4 above. If you haven't done your homework (and preferably, analyzed your audience), there's no reason you should succeed and you have no one to blame but yourself. Nothing undermines public speaking confidence like being unprepared. But conversely, nothing gives you more confidence than being ready. Here are 12 foolproof ways to open a speech. And here's how to close with a great conclusion.
6. Narcissism. This is the "toughest love" message of all, and one I never give clients until we're well into the coaching process. Some years ago, I realized that allowing yourself to be in the grip of extreme public speaking anxiety was a narcissistic endeavor. How can you influence your audience if you're totally wrapped up in your own responses? You can't. So turn that spotlight around and "illuminate" your listeners. You don't matter. They do.
7. Dissatisfaction with your abilities. Okay, this one is a legitimate concern for any speaker. But it's also one of the easiest of these Top 10 causes to remedy. You should feel dissatisfied if your skills are below par. But dissatisfaction can be an excellent spur toward improvement. Get the speech training you've been thinking about. Just knowing you have first-rate skills can provide you with a truckload of confidence, as well as an eagerness to speak.
8. Discomfort with your own body and movement. Did you ever consider that you're perfectly at ease physically when talking with friends, but the minute you get up in front of a large audience you're an octopus without an ocean? Can't you hear yourself? "Did I always move this way?" "What are these appendages for?!" Self-consciousness soars when you're fearful about speaking in public, and along with that comes extreme body self-awareness. Think back to the tip above about having a conversation, which will help you move easily. Also, pay attention to how you stand, sit, gesture, and move when you're with friends. Then work on recreating that with larger audiences. Here are 5 key body language techniques of effective public speaking. And here are 5 body language errors that will sink your presentation.
9. Poor breathing habits. The chances are good that you know how to breathe for life but not necessarily for speech. Public speaking requires a larger reservoir of air, for instance, and your exhalation needs to be more controlled. Diaphragmatic or belly breathing is the key, as it is for projecting sufficiently to reach the back of a large room. Also for calming that galloping heart and for keeping you from audibly gasping for air when you run out.
10. Comparing ourselves to others. Don't you dare! Your job is never to be an excellent speaker (unless you make your living as a motivational speaker). Your task is to do your job well, or have a passion for the thing you're speaking about, and to be an interesting speaker. That's it. The really good news is that no one in the entire universe can do that as well as you, because you're precisely the person who is supposed to be speaking in this situation. You're the man! OR You're the woman! Give your audience you. You're the person they truly came to hear.