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!
(Need a powerful technique to relax before a speech or presentation, 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, speech anxiety is certainly on a lot of hit lists of things people would rather not do. But what specifically causes this type of social anxiety?
To learn powerful ways to conquer your stage fright, take a look at my latest book, Fearless Speaking. You'll find 50 hands-on exercises to help you overcome your fear of public speaking in as little as 12 days. Download a free chapter here. Start your journey today to speaking with greater confidence, control, and enjoyment!
Speech Anxiety and Stage Fright Among Professionals
As the founder and president of The Genard Method in Boston, I work constantly with professionals who struggle with fear of public speaking. Watch the video below this paragraph, where I explain my Fearless Speaking System. From years of working with these clients, 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, along with ways to overcome your fears.
The Top 10 Reasons Speakers Struggle with Stage Fright
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 illogic and tell yourself that once the audience notices your nervousness, everyone will realize you don't really know your topic. Of course, the two aren't linked at all. For instance, if you see that a speaker is nervous, what do you think? It's probably, "Poor him or her! . . . I'd be nervous up there too." If anything, your audience will extend you sympathy. So believe that that's what will happen.
3. Concern that others are judging you. The tough love message concerning this fear of public speaking, is that people really don't care about you. They're in the audience to get something out of your 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.
(Do you experience panic attacks when you speak? If so, here are 3 escape hatches you can use during a public speaking panic attack.)
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, you tell yourself, this evil tree will bear more fruit next season, and the one after! Of course, if you know your stuff and have done your homework, there's absolutely no reason something that happened once 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 analyzed your audience), there's no reason you should succeed. If that's the case, 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.
For a complete how-to on launching your presentation strongly, see my e-book "How to Start a Speech." Get the guide to great openings and launch your speeches with impact!
6. Narcissism. This is the "toughest love" message of all concerning fear of public speaking. It's one I never give clients until we're well into the process of coaching to overcome stage fright. 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 of fear of public speaking 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. It's also much more likely to make you eager to speak.
8. Discomfort with your own body and movement. Did you ever consider that you're perfectly at ease physically with friends, but the minute you get up in front of an audience you sometimes feel like an octopus without an ocean? 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 with listeners, which should help you feel more comfortable physically. Also, pay attention to how you stand, sit, gesture, and move when you're with friends. Then work on recreating your natural movement with larger audiences. Here are 5 secrets of powerful body language for effective public speaking.
9. Poor breathing habits. Unless you've been trained as an actor or singer, the chances are good that you're unaware of the best method of breathing for speech. Public speaking requires a larger reservoir of air, for instance, than breathing for life or "vegetative breathing." Equally important, your exhalation needs to be more controlled so you can sustain vocalized sound to the ends of phrases, where the most important words usually reside, Diaphragmatic breathing is the key. It's also an important method of calming your galloping heart during fear of public speaking, and of course for keeping you from audibly gasping for air when you run out of breath due to nervousness. Here's an excellent video on the benefits of deep breathing.
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 pursue your passion, and be interesting when you talk about it. 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 the person here to tell others about it. Truly, you're the person your audience came to hear.
This blog was originally published in 2013. It is regularly updated.
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