Why do we fear public speaking?
Updated: Sep 7
That sense of dread at standing up in front of classmates; that uncomfortable feeling in the stomach at the prospect of delivering a speech; the clammy palms or flushed complexion just before beginning. At one time or another, we have all been there and we wouldn’t choose to go back to those moments, no thank you. But the fear of public speaking is more than just those every day feelings that we had once upon a time. So, what is it that makes us so afraid, and leads some to develop glossophobia? Well, there are a few theories on that.
Theorists and researchers have found that the fear of public speaking is less to do with the actual delivery of the speech itself, and more to do with the speaker’s mental and physical condition in the lead up and delivery. Following on from this, they have put forward that there are four contributing factors for why we fear delivering a speech in public.
Fear and anxiety are our bodies natural response to a potentially threatening stimulus. When confronted with a threat, our bodies release chemicals into our bloodstream which are to protect us. This release leads to the emotional and physical experience of fear (the racing thoughts, increased sweating etc.), and it interferes with our ability to perform comfortably in front of audiences.
There are some researchers who suggest that there are people who experience higher anxiety across different situations, and are therefore more prone to feel anxious about speaking in public as well. Frustratingly for those individuals, they may find it more challenging to master their anxiety and conquer their fear of public speaking.
For other people, the anxiety is limited to public speaking situations, but the physiological signs of fear they experience as they anticipate, prepare, and deliver their speech in public are exactly the same.
One frustrating element is the self-talk, our internalised narrative that we tell ourselves on a regular basis. For many, this is wholly negative - I am not good enough / I am not good at speaking in front of groups / I don’t have anything interesting to share. Such negative views of ourselves as a speaker can also raise anxiety and induce the fear of speaking in public.
For some, it may be that we don’t think that we have the ability to deliver content to a large group in a clear and successful way. The communication of information is central to the speech and if they don’t understand it at the end, it was a failure. The anxiety becomes worse at the mere idea of being misheard or not understood.
For others, the internalised narrative may be about the lack of skill to deliver a talk to a group. But, more on that a little later.
Since we know that there are people who tend to be more anxious, or those who don’t think they are good at public speaking, there are certain situations which are likely to make us more anxious when presenting in public.
When there is an assessment component to the situation, the fear is likely to be stronger. If you are speaking in front of a group of people who have the evaluation forms ready to fill out, you may feel more anxious, understandably.
If you are about to speak in front of people of higher status, such as people at your workplace in higher positions, or groups of accomplished professionals in your line of work, you may feel a higher dose of fear.
While you may be relatively at ease when presenting to a familiar group of people, fear can arise more significantly when the target audience shifts. If you are standing in front of an audience that is very different from the people you usually speak to, you are likely to demonstrate glossophobic traits more than normal.
The final factor which can contribute to glossophobia is how skilled a person is at delivering a speech. While many people consider themselves naturally good speakers, there is always room for growth, so the people who develop their abilities, regardless of initial skill, are the speakers who stand out the most. There are many different approaches to enhancing this skill set and increasing competence in public speaking. Essentially, the more competent you are or become, the more confidence you will gain, which is perceived to be an antidote to fear. Nevertheless, experts are also quick to point out that confidence alone does not translate into effective public speaking.
Ultimately, having a clear understanding of what is causing our fear of public speaking, regardless of the severity of our condition, is a powerful tool in taking control of the situation. The clarity which can be gleaned from such knowledge will stand those in good stead to create a pathway to managing this phobia. And that is just what oVRcome are developing - a support programme to make it all possible. Stay tuned for updates!
Does the content in this article ring true for you? Try taking the fear of public speaking test.