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10 Causes of Speech Anxiety that Create Fear of Public Speaking

With speech anxiety, you need to know how to overcome your fear of public speaking.

Do you suffer from fear of public speaking? Here are 10 causes of speech anxiety and powerful tips about how to speak with confidence!

Want an attention-grabber the next time you give a speech? How about this: Speech anxiety ranks higher than death as the fear people mention most often!

How's that for a widespread form of social anxiety?

Need a powerful technique to relax before your next speech or presentation? The more important the outcome, the more frazzled you'll probably be. Wouldn't you rather be in The Zone so you can achieve maximum influence? Here's a technique that can help even if you only have 5 minutes to spare! It's in my essential cheat sheet for speakers, "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 survey that's still cited above any other. It'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 jitters is high on the hit list 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 in as little as 12 days! Download a free chapter here. Start your journey today to speaking with greater confidence, control, and enjoyment!


Overcoming Speech Anxiety and Stage Fright 

As the founder and president of The Genard Method in Boston, I work constantly with professionals who struggle with self-consciousness and lack of confidence when it comes to presenting in front of others. In the video below this paragraph, 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 for performance anxiety. It's very common for a speech coach to hear: "I'm fine talking to small groups. But when it's [50] [100] [400, etc.] people, 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 here 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 to take home something positive. You can also console yourself with the knowledge that watching a speaker fail is embarrassing for everyone. That means that audiences are actually pulling for you!
Do you feel the need to suddenly run out of the room when you speak? If so, here are 3 escape hatches to use during a public speaking panic attack.

  1.  Past failures. Public speaking anxiety is often learned behavior. That is, you failed at some point in a speaking situation, and the seed was planted. Surely, it's going to happen all over again every time you present! But if you know your stuff and you're prepared, there's no reason something that happened once must occur again. Not, that is, unless you tell yourself it will and subconsciously get ready for it. Plan to succeed instead.
  2.  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 creating engaging openings that launch your presentation strongly, see my e-book "How to Start a Speech." Get the guide to grabbing an audience's attention and getting listeners on your side immediately!

  1.  Narcissism. This is the toughest love message of all concerning stage fright. It's one I never give my clients until we're well into the process of coaching to overcome their fear. Some years ago, I realized that allowing yourself to be in the grip of extreme public speaking anxiety is a narcissistic endeavor. How can you influence an 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.
  2.  Dissatisfaction with your abilities. Okay, this one is a legitimate concern. But it's also one of the easiest of my Top 10 causes to remedy. You should feel dissatisfied if your speaking skills are below par. But dissatisfaction can be an excellent spur. 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.
  3.  Discomfort with your own body and movement. Why is it that so many of us are perfectly at ease physically with friends, but self-conscious and awkward in front of an audience? If that's you, read the tip above about having a conversation with listeners. That should help you relax into your body. Also, pay attention to how you stand, sit, gesture, and move when you're in a comfortable environment. Then recreate that natural movement with larger audiences. Here are 5 secrets of powerful body language for effective public speaking
  4.  Poor breathing habits. Unless you've been trained as an actor or singer, the chances are you're unaware of how to breathe for speech. Public speaking requires a larger reservoir of air than "vegetative breathing." Equally important, your exhalation needs to be controlled so you can sustain vocalized sound to the ends of phrases. Diaphragmatic breathing is the key. It's also an important way to calm your galloping heart. Here's a great video.
  5.  Comparing ourselves to others. Don't you dare! Your job is never to be an "excellent" speaker. It's to be interesting when you discuss your topic or passion. 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 us about it. Truly, you're the one the audience came to hear.
This blog was originally published in 2013. It has been updated here.

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