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Worse than anything: Why are we terrified of public speaking?

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

Worse than anything: Why are we terrified of public speaking?

Lots of us have been there - that gut-wrenching feeling when you realise that you are about to speak in front of other people. It might not even be something formal, it could be amongst friends, but that doesn’t stop the sense of doom descending. Whether it’s from a young age and those pesky school presentations, or it’s arrived during adulthood and your professional development or family gathering, the crippling fear of public speaking feels really bad. But what is it about standing up in front of others to talk that makes us so terrified?

Surprisingly, the fear of public speaking is less to do with the actual delivery of the speech itself, researchers have found. They suggest it has more to do with the speaker’s mental state in the lead up and delivery. From this, they have put forward what they believe to be some of the main contributing factors for why we fear delivering a speech in public. And here are their 10 top reasons:

1. Being judged

People form opinions of just about everyone they come into contact with. We all do it. By putting ourselves out there means that we too will be judged by the audience isn’t a pleasant realisation, and certainly fuels a negative narrative in our mind.

2. Making mistakes

Not wanting to make a silly mistake on stage while a group of people have their eyes on you is completely rational. From mispronouncing a word, or not delivering the speech in the manner intended, mistakes happen. Frustratingly, the idea of making them over inflates our sense of consequences they create.

3. Forgetting what to say

This one ranks high on the scale of terror. Being caught out in front of others while trying to remember what it is that you wanted to share is no one’s idea of a good time. The worst part about this one is that the physical effects of fear actually contribute to forgetfulness.

4. Freezing

That moment when our minds go blank, we’re rooted to the spot and can’t say anything. Similar to forgetting what to say as the physical effects that fear has on us, here with the fight or flight mode kicking in when we freeze. Equally terrifying.

5. Being “found out”

Known as imposter syndrome, this is the fear of people finding out they’re a fraud. The thought behind it is that the speaker feels as if they aren’t an expert in their field, but rather an imposter. This is purely related to self confidence and it’s very common.

6. Being criticized in the moment

If we are put on the spot by another person when delivering a talk, while there’s an entire audience looking on, it would feel like an awful lot of pressure. Even if you have the knowledge to back up your points, the pressure can fluster even the most intelligent person.

7. Speaking in front of professional peers

Basically, you’re speaking to people who all do the exact same thing that you do. They could be audience members, or assessors of what you are delivering. Whatever the case, who’d be more qualified to judge you than them? And that’s the reason for this fear.

8. Coming across poorly

In the age of Ted Talks and the internet, it’s safe to say we have all seen what a really good speech delivery looks like. Well, when you don’t have the expertise in how to achieve that style of talk, the fear of looking or sounding like you don’t know how to present is quite significant.

9. People questioning your credibility

Something of a combination of imposter syndrome, delivering to professional peers and delivery ability, but more specifically rooted in self-doubt. This is heightened when we consider our own credentials to be lacking, and projecting that belief onto others.

10. Your points being disputed

This one points directly towards the cancel culture and the polarising world of internet comment sections. It also speaks to the sense of preparedness we might have, since defending and explaining our stance requires a lot of work.

With all of these possible factors in mind, what is the most important takeaway?

Ultimately, there could be a number of influencing factors which are personal to each individual, so the key is having a really clear understanding of what is causing the fear of public speaking. That awareness and clarity will stand you in good stead to challenge your fear.

Do you dread public speaking? Try taking the free fear of public speaking test.

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