Behind the Fear of Speaking

The fear of public speaking has ranked higher than death, going to the dentist, and getting divorced. Depending on which survey you read, snakes and warfare may outrank public speaking but only by a small margin. Why are people so petrified to speak publicly? Why does public speaking fear rank so high? What’s behind this fear?

After decades of exploring public speaking and working with all types of people with all types of speaking needs, I’ve learned that there is no one size fits all when it comes to the reasons behind public speaking fear. But over the years several common threads have emerged: insufficient training, lack of confidence, and cultural conditioning can contribute to the fear of speaking in public.

More recently I have worked with clients who have shared another underlying cause: childhood trauma from sexual abuse to bullying to shaming and criticism that is internalized by high impressionable youngsters.

Late or insufficient training or practice: Though some people may have had training in high school or college, most have not. How effective would a professional athlete or musician be if he or she only received a smidgeon of instruction and practiced only a day or two before their performance?

Lack of confidence due to personality style: perfectionism, self-criticism, high control needs; inherent neuro-physiological disposition: introversion/extroversion/shyness ; learning style; or physical appearance (feeling “different” because of race, culture, gender, age, weight, accent, dialect, etc.).

Cultural conditioning: Being taught to speak only when spoken to and that children should be seen and not heard.

Early childhood trauma: Perhaps empowered by the MeToo movement, more people are talking about prior abuses that have eroded their confidence, including bullying, sexual molestation, and rape; negative criticism, shaming, lack of validation by parents, teachers or clergy, frequent relocations, learning differences, and dysfunctional family environments.

Peer bullying was at the root of one client’s fear of speaking. Smart and likeable, this professional was referred by his manager to help him speak up at meetings. His fear of sounding stupid and being laughed at (just as he was in elementary school) was the core of his discomfort and reticence to speak up. The client could not get beyond his silence. The inability to engage in groups was noted on his performance review, and he was overlooked for a position he wanted.

Another client was an effective corporate vice president who gave speeches, but not without severe anxiety, headaches, and digestive problems. An “Army brat,” she moved from country to country with her family, never being in any one place long enough to make friends. She also felt learning-challenged, but at that time there were no special education assessments for children who performed well.

When she sought public speaking support, she shared her intuition about being learning-challenged, got tested, and found out that she did in fact have dyslexia. Being the only person of her race in school, moving two or more times per year, and struggling with reading, she managed her anxiety alone, unable to ask for help. She performed but paid a price.

In essence, these four reasons for public speaking fear are really four areas that contribute to the lack of self-confidence. Inherent to public speaking is the assumption that a speaker is a knowledgeable authority on a subject and worthy of being listened to.

This position of authority is reinforced by the speaker environment: the speaker traditionally stands, and the listeners sit. This dynamic is not the norm for most and can trigger discomfort and often panic. If an individual doesn’t feel “smart enough,” skilled enough, prepared enough, or entitled enough to speak up and have his/her voice, public speaking can become a platform for anxiety, fear, and insecurity.

These four reasons also dispel two persistent myths about public speaking: You “should” be able to speak to many because you can speak one to one. And you either have it (the gift of public speaking) or you don’t. Public speakers are born, not made.

I believe that public speaking is both an art and a science. On the science side, there are organizational tools and body language techniques that appeal to the masses — simply because the audience is human, and humans neurologically and physiologically respond in a similarly human way.

Examples include storytelling and the rule of three for organizing a presentation. From the art point of view, individual uniqueness differentiates one speaker from another. If a handful of people were given the identical slide deck presentation and asked to present, there would be no two identical deliveries. Their personal stories, word-choice, vocal style, and non-verbal communication are their unique artistry. Like DNA or a fingerprint, each of us is genuinely a “one-of-a-kind original.”

My program, 4 Points of Connection, was designed to simplify the presentation process and provide professionals with tools to make them confident speakers. It’s important to note that these four points of connection are interdependent.

For example, opening a presentation creatively with a personal story or anecdote, not only engages listeners (Audience Connection), but also helps reduce anxiety at the presentation start (Inner Self Connection). Likewise, managing one’s unconscious and distracting body movements not only supports speaker image and credibility (Physical Self Connection and Audience Connection), it also contributes to a speaker’s confidence (Inner Self Connection).

And sharing one’s trauma with a supportive and compassionate coach (Inner Self Connection) often frees up tension, releasing the energy necessary to move beyond procrastination and begin the planning process (Connection to Message) and deliver authentically (Physical Self Connection).

The fear of speaking is real, and its causes varied and complex. That said, presenting at your best is still an attainable goal. An experienced coach and/or strong training program are key. Whether afraid to speak up at a meeting with your peers, pitch your product or business to a prospective client, present an update to the board or senior executive team; whether uneasy on stage as the gala emcee; or in front of an audience of 1,000 as a technical expert or conference keynote, Speaking that Connects’ 4 Points of Connection programs gives you the speaking tools to grow your speaking confidence, communication competence and presentation performance.

4 Points of Connection will be offered in class and workshop formats. For more information click here.

Reprinted from the March 14, 2018, issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper