Why Do We Fear Public Speaking?

By Joey Asher

Category: Nerves and Facial Energy

I have a friend who fears airplanes. Ask him why and he’ll say, “If we were meant to fly, God would have given us wings.”

When people ask me why people fear public speaking, I have a similar response. “If we were meant to give speeches, God would have embedded microphones on our lapels.”

Let me explain. There has been a great deal of research into the causes of “glossophobia,” the fear of public speaking. But none of the research has been particularly conclusive.

Some psychologists trace extreme cases of stage fright to childhood trauma. Others say that fear of public speaking builds gradually over time as we avoid every opportunity to speak. Still others point out that fear of public speaking may be a by-product of low self-esteem and a fear of being judged harshly.I’m sure that all are true to some extent. But I think that most of us fear public speaking for the same reason that many people fear swimming or flying or skydiving. Just as we weren’t designed to jump out of airplanes, we weren’t designed to stand up and give speeches. And we have to adapt strategies to overcome these designed shortcomings and our fears.

Let’s start with the face. The most expressive part of the body, our face, is not particularly useful in front of large groups. Paul Ekman, the renowned social psychologist, found that we are able to make about 3,000 different meaningful facial expressions. Prof. Ekman has even identified dozens of little eyebrow, mouth and eye twitches that he called “micro-expressions.”

But what good are “micro-expressions” in front of 50 people? The facial tics that work in intimate conversations don’t work with larger groups. We sense that and get anxious.

The solution is to adapt our facial energy to larger audiences by exaggeration. For example, exaggerated eyebrow action helps you connect with larger groups. It may feel odd. But it will look good.

The need for eye contact is another problem that undermines our ability to connect with larger audiences. When I want to make sure that my daughter is paying attention, I look her straight in the eye before I speak.

But how do you make eye contact with 25 people? Which part of the multi-headed beast should I look at? Once again, the solution is to adapt the eye contact to a larger audience. Instead of trying to make eye contact with everyone, try having “mini-conversations” with individuals. Talk to one person for five seconds and then move to another person.

Finally, human communication works best as a dialogue. My wife asks me what happened at work. I respond and then ask her the same question. The monologue of a speech deprives us of that give and take.

I was at a party recently where I had to give a toast. I spent the entire party in back-and-forth conversation. Then suddenly I had to stand in front of 50 people and carry the entire conversation myself. It was nerve racking.

The solution is to adapt a more conversational speaking style. Rather than speaking for 20 minutes without stopping, turn the presentation into a dialogue by leaving plenty of time for Q&A.

If you fear public speaking, don’t worry. You probably feared the water before you learned to swim.

Speechworks is a communication and selling skills coaching firm. We teach professionals how to craft and deliver complex messages in a simple, persuasive manner. Since 1986, through workshops and one-on-one instruction, we have helped countless individuals become better presenters and communicators. You can reach us at 404.266.0888, speech@speechworks.net or on the web at www.speechworks.net

Joey Asher

Joey is the President of Speechworks, a communication and selling skills coaching firm. He has worked with thousands of professionals, helping them learn to communicate in a way that connects with clients and audiences. He is also the author of four books on communication skills: “15 Minutes Including Q&A: a Plan to Save the World from Lousy Presentations,” “How to Win a Pitch: The Five Fundamentals That Will Distinguish You from the Competition,” “Selling and Communication Skills for Lawyers,” and “Even A Geek Can Speak.” He can be reached at 404-266-0888 or joey@speechworks.net.


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