Fear of Public Speaking Supersedes Our Fear of Dying!

When you hear someone mention “public speaking” you can bet that the reaction won’t be positive.  After spending nearly two decades as a speaker, public speaking educator or coach, when people hear what I do, the number one response is, “Oh – I hate public speaking” and “Public speaking stresses me out” to “I could never do that.” In fact, I have had many clients tell me the one course they need to finish their degree of higher education is public speaking.  However, if you are someone whose blood pressure rises, palms get sweaty and start to feel pressure when it comes to public speaking, remember, you are not alone.   The fear of public speaking seems to be one of the top human fears.  Let’s talk about why. 

What Is Public Speaking?

By definition, public speaking is when you have a speaker who engages with a live audience of 10 or more people.  Some scholars have the number closer to 15. The idea is still the same.  One speaker addressing one cohesive audience at the same time.  This is slightly differently than “mediated communication” or “mass communication” that has one speaker addressing their audience through some sort of technological device that you can tune into at any time.  One important detail is that the speaker and the audience have opportunity to interact in realtime during a public address – something that has not holistically be an option through mediated channels, such as the TV and radio. 

Today, we have technology that allows us to have a speaker address a live audience in real-time AND interact with their audience.  Speaking through means such as Instagram LIVE, Facebook LIVE and YouTube LIVE allows speakers and their audience to interact with only a lag time of 30 -40 seconds.  This is a new space of speaking that bridges live speaking and mediated speaking.  The one thing that doesn’t change is the fear and anxiety that accompany it. 

Why Do We Get Scared?

 In fact, public speaking is a more pressing concern than even death for people throughout the world. A Gallup Poll confirmed that 40% of Americans say public speaking is their greatest fear.  This same poll showed only 25% of Americans named death their greatest fear.  This shows that although public speaking is an inherent part of our culture, people are still fearful.  

There are several reasons why we are scared.  One principal reason is our physiology.  Did you know your body cannot differentiate between actual and perceived stressors? Stressors are things that we perceive as threats…things that can actually hurt us, our family, or our ability to survive. This means something we think is a threat will trigger the same response as something that is actually is a threat.  

Let’s talk about this. What is a real threat to our well being?  A lion attack?  A speeding car in our living room.  A gun-wielding madman in our bedroom in the middle of the night.  Those are all real threats.  Incidents that result in a true life or death situation. 


What is a perceived threat? Something we are afraid of – but is not really going to end in a true life-or-death situation.  These are everyday stressors…such as getting nervous before speaking, anxious before an interview, worried about your kids on their bikes.  These are things that could potentially result in a negative outcome – but, for the most part of not inherently dangerous. 

The problem is, our bodies react to both types of stressors the same way.  So, when your brain hears “Speech!!” and you panic, you are sending messages to your body to react as if you are in danger. That ends in “fight or flight” mechanisms.  That means our bodies get ready to “run” and flee the danger or “fight” the danger.  In reality, if we encounter a lion, we need “fight or flight” — if we have to take a hard test, “fight or flight” will not help us succeed.

What Is The Result of Fight or Flight”?

When you go into “fight or flight” response mode, your nervous system is activated due to a sudden rush of hormones being released into your bloodstream.   The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands to release catecholamines, which include adrenaline and noradrenaline.  These hormones prepare your body to either stay and deal with the threat (fight) or run away to safety (flight). 

This response reflects back to our early ancestors who had to make ‘fight or flight’ decisions for basic survival. Although the environment has changed, and for the most part, we are not living in the same inherent dangers, our bodies have not.  

What happens to our bodies during this stage of fight or flight? Our heart rates increase, blood pressure goes up, as does our breathing.  Your body might become quite tense, your hands might get sweaty, you may tremble, your eyes will dilate, your skin will become flushed or pale and chances are good, it becomes difficult to make clear decisions – thinking is cloudy. 

Will The Anxiety Ever Go Away? 

Fear, anxiety and apprehension are completely normal.  They are perfectly human responses to stress.  These responses prime your body to deal with danger – when danger is imminent.  In fact, we do not want this response to go away because it could truly save our lives. 

That being said, it does beg the question of self-talk and facing our fears.  Scholars call these imaginary fears – things like fear of heights, excessive speed, falling or speaking.  This doesn’t mean they are not scary – but, for the most part, they are not life-threatening.  

It is important to become aware of what “perceived” or “imaginary” threats spark in you.  It is also important to talk to yourself and remind yourself that although something may seem scary, it is still safe.  It might be intimidating, but it is not a true threat to our well-being.  This simple act of self- talk will help your body to calm down.  When you are calm, your body (and brain) will return to your ‘normal’ that will allow you to effectively deal with the perceived threat. 

Work With the Wordwell Group  To Overcome Your Fear of Speaking

A few important take-aways from this short discussion on fear is that first, fear is normal.  It is completely human.  Second, it will never completely go away.  The good news is that the adrenaline that fight or flight triggers can be channeled into a positive space and help you become a better speaker.  

When you are ready to overcome your fear of speaking, reach out to the Wordwell Group.  We we help you uncover what is triggering your anxiety and work with you to apply simple techniques to reduce your anxiety so you can become an elevated speaker.  Schedule your first consultation with Dr. Cross today by email wordwellgroup@gmail.com, clicking the link or requesting an appointment through the Contact Us page.

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