Fear of public speaking — a worn-out cliche?

MunchTheScreamClip

from Munch, "The Scream," Wikipedia Commons

How many times have you heard or read the claim that the average person fears public speaking more than they fear death?

If you search online for “fear of public speaking,” you will not be likely to stumble upon articles from psychology journals in the first few pages of hits.   This is what you will find — web sites that are providing advice or coaching on public speaking.

In such essays and speeches, it stars as an introductory strategy.  The fear is often vaguely cited from hearsay, and often involves a misinterpretation of the usual survey methods and results.

When a speaker fails to back up specific claims about the “fear of public speaking,” it becomes a rhetorical cliche.

This article examines the potential benefits and harms of using it as an introductory cliche, and the benefits of investigating the research further.

A Cliche?

First, a clarification.  The fear of public speaking IS real and IS common. There are numerous articles and books you can find on speech anxiety and it’s a valid area of study.  At the end of this article I profile one of these articles. (note added Nov. 1/09: see the comments for a few more). It is entirely believable that people are sometimes afraid of public speaking and that it can be paralyzing and debilitating.  I myself would much rather write a blog article than be interviewed on the radio or TV. 

But using it as a cliche cuts off the opportunity to question the nature and value of the fear. how severely is the fear felt?  Could it be very mild as well as very common?  In what situations is it felt and by which kinds of people?  Could it be that some of the most effective, successful speakers feel this fear?

In the rhetorical treatise De Oratore, the ancient roman orator, Cicero, makes his main character Crassus confess to a fear of public speaking but Crassus did not teach his listeners to overcome that fear.   Instead, he taught that a rhetor should have a healthy degree of fear that demonstrates respect for the audience, and he reasons that without this fear a rhetor would become shamelessly arrogant and would not prepare or polish his speech.   As Cicero teaches, let us aspire to rhetorical excellence, and fear being reproached for poor rhetoric.

Like Cicero, I’m saying that those who use this theme of fear should beware the unseen pitfalls of using it merely as a hook —  We should be a little more afraid of using it sloppily, and show more respect for both the topic and the audience by trying to find a good basis of our claims in the research.

Why is this fear so frequently cited?

… because the topic itself makes sense for an introduction.

  1. It attracts and creates thirsty audiences. If you were going to offer advice on public speaking, who would be looking for it?  The people who are feeling anxious about it, of course.  By naming the fear, it might enhance their awareness of their fear and make them more “thirsty” for advice than they were in the first place.
  2. It promotes the rhetor’s identification with the audience. Those who proffer advice on public speaking will often introduce it with this information as a way of reaching out to the audience and sympathizing with their fear of public speaking.  What a  topical way to bridge the distance between speaker/writer and audience!
  3. It’s a handy strategy for boosting your own ethos if you are giving advice. Having a high-profile fear related to one’s realm of expertise can be good for you.  It makes your services, as fear-calmer, appear to be in demand, although some will still fear the medicine itself  (public speaking instruction and practice).

Sigh.  You can see how tempting it is to fall into this cliche, both for the rhetor and for the audience.  It’s comforting to commiserate over a fear without looking further into it.

However, to use it offhandedly and inaccurately (just to accomplish the above) undermines your real ethos (credibility) and your logos (your use of logic and evidence).  It may take advantage of, and contribute to, intellectual laziness.

John Downes-Angus’s article The Destructive Power of Rhetorical Clichés (sept. 30, 2008, The Trinity Tripod online) makes a similar point about the use of cliche ideas and expressions:

The things with which we are most familiar undergo the least critical analysis. [....]

The line, “We are the defenders of freedom” exemplifies the ability of clichés to subvert the analysis of an idea. Many Americans are comfortably familiar with this cliché.  [.... ] By slinging around clichés, our president garnered support for his war. [....] Had we not allowed ourselves to be victimized by clichés, it is possible that we could have avoided sinking into this grotesque and embarrassing display of failed international politics.

Although “the fear of public speaking” does not have as significantly horrible effects as cliches used in politics and war, it does have an effect on our social understanding of the fear of public speaking and what should be done about it (that it is always bad, that it is primarily an individual phobia, that certain types of therapy or education help us overcome it, etc.)

For instance, here are only a few samples of texts where such claims are cited — are they accurate and credible?  Why or why not?

Samples

1

Conquering your fear of public speaking by Steve Tobak, Nov. 2, 2007, CTNet News begins with the statement: “People fear public speaking more than anything else.”

This simple form of expression “more than anything else” makes it seem as if people, when presented with the equal probability that X, Y, or Z would occur, would be most afraid of X, the fear of public speaking.  But that is not necessarily what the research shows, unless the researcher asked the respondent to “rank” fears 1-10, rather than “check all that apply.”

Okay, at least Mr. Tobak tries to provide some reasoning for this later in the article:

“Some data suggests that successful, career-minded people are unusually susceptible to this fear. Apparently, if you’re driven and achievement-oriented, you’re likely to worry more about performance and appearances.”

… but no citation is given regarding the source of “some data.”  I’d like to read the source, actually.  I can identify with those anxiety-ridden high achievers, though I experience less often the fear of speaking than regret after speaking something I later realized was slightly inaccurate or could be misunderstood.

2

“Fear of public speaking” by Hildy Gottleib of the Community Driven Institute, 2004, begins with this statement: “Some studies have shown that fear of public speaking ranks up there with the fear of death. That doesn’t surprise me.” Then the writer goes on to provide anecdotes and advice on public speaking.

Which studies?  In what way does it rank “up there” with the fear of death? does it rank 3rd, and death 5th? among what other fears besides death?  Is it a rank of the fear’s severity or frequency?  Which studies shore up this claim?

3

Fear of public speaking ranks right up there, along with fear of abandonment and death…(yes that is the title) by Dr. Noreen Golfman, Professor of English and Dean of Graduate Studies, published on Postcards from the Edge, on the website of Memorial University, September 18, 2009. This article describes the situation of people speaking at a Graduate program orientation with 200 people present.  It argues, later on, that “If we are reproducing a society of people who remain terrorized by the demands of public speaking, we should be doing something about it. We should be offering special courses in public speaking at the undergraduate level, first, and foremost…”

Of course I agree with Dr. Golfman’s persuasive conclusion about one thing we  can do about the fear.  At the University of Calgary I teach COMS 369: Rhetorical Communication, a course on rhetorical theory applied to public speech and writing.   I teach it not primarily for personal benefit (overcoming fear and being more personally effective as  a speaker) but mainly for Cicero’s reasons, to enhance the quality of our discourse and thereby enhance the quality of our society.

But that is not the point in my article on the cliche (see? It’s easy to distract you from the evidence!)  The question I am asking is — What evidence supports that claim “we are reproducing a society of people who remain terrorized by the demands of public speaking” ?

4

Conquer the fear of public speaking. CanadaOne Magazine.  By Robert N. Lee and Margaret Anne J. Taylor.  Published December 2001.  The article begins this way:  “People often list public speaking just below “death” on their list of greatest fears.”

Are you as bewildered as I am?  Are these people referring to the same body of literature as sample #1, which seems to contradict them?  Or is everyone just recycling what they heard from other rhetoricians who have used this technique?

How were the statistics generated?

Where is our hunger to find out what psychologists, sociologists, and pollsters have really discovered about this fear?

In an article that uses this rhetorical cliche, rarely will you be given the tools to find out for yourself the studies that might be buried beneath.

But if you are lucky enough to see a citation of a poll or a psychological study, think about how the circumstances and purposes of the study make a difference in what is discovered.

Imagine this scenario:

You are a young, healthy person aged 18-22. You are taking a university course in psychology in which you get bonus credit for participation in psychological studies. You are given a survey in which you are asked the open-ended question: “What things make you feel anxious or afraid in your every day life?  Please name 5 of your own fears and rank them.”  You write down “making a fool of myself by saying something stupid in front of a group of people.”  Or you might say “answering a teacher’s question in a class of 200 people, and being told it is the wrong answer.”  The psychologist is coding the qualitative data according to the categories found in the literature, and categorizes your answer under the heading “speech anxiety,” which subsequently gets translated by the public as “fear of public speaking.”

Now imagine this scenario:Gunwikimedia

You are waiting for the bus.  A man walks by you, stops, pulls out a gun and says “would you like to speak publicly at my son’s funeral, or would you like to die today?” Of course, you value your life, and you answer, “I’d rather speak publicly, sir.”  Then, surprisingly, he says “thank you for participating in my survey.”  He pulls out a notepad and pen and checks something off.  He then puts his gun away, and continues walking down the street.  After many such incidents, he gathers enough data to publish an article in the Journal of Twisted and Unethical Psychology Experiments.

If pollsters and psychologists used the second set of methods to generate their data, “death” would be up there at the top of the list.

In everyday life in North America, people are not faced with the alternative of “public speaking … or death.”

Consider the following issues …

Who stops to ask questions about the “ranking” of the fear of public speaking?  If you are looking for advice on public speaking, you will read on without so much as a blink.

But if you are thinking about logic and evidence, you will consider these things –

  1. What kind of survey is it from? What are the options for answers given? Were they asked about frequency or the poignancy of fears ?  Unless the study is based on a “ranking” question (in which people are asked to rate a list of fears provided to them) it does not mean that the surveyed population fears public speaking more than they fear death.  Open-ended questions are likely to skim what is on the surface of the mind.
  2. Who was surveyed? Was it a population less likely to face a life threatening situation than face a public speaking situation?   How many among them faced occupational safety issues — i.e. soldiers, police, pilots, industrial workers?  If you’re a young and healthy person living in North America, why should you be afraid of death as you go about your everyday business, taking buses and answering surveys?
  3. Under what circumstances were they surveyed? in a situation that made them more aware of certain fears than others?

If we learn about the studies more deeply, we might find ourselves asking further questions about the perceived risks of speech in society.

  • Are these surveys measuring  frequently faced challenges in a given population? Why not study the most challenging and risky situations in society in order to balance the interiorizing effect of considering the fear as a psychological issue?
  • What do we mean by public speaking? What is public enough to cause fear?  Is it the sheer number of people in the audience, or also the type of people?  Or is it the occasion that presents more risk than a casual conversation with a close friend?
  • To what degree are respondents answering this way because they think they should, because they think it’s a socially acceptable and common fear to confess to, or because it comes to mind so easily as a logical connection?  It could simply be a matter of commonly associated terms (speech, fear)  reinforced by the prevalence of the cliche’s use in society.
  • Do the surveys also say something about what people value highly in a society (eloquence, ability to speak well) and thus fear to be found lacking?
  • Perhaps polls conducted in the US create not just knowledge of “human psychology” in a universal sense, but a sociological portrait of the highly verbal, argumentative culture of the United States. Would the results be slightly different in Canada, and very different in China or Japan? I wonder what the statistics would be if the poll were taken in a country torn apart by civil war, in which nobody did “public speaking” other than a small handful of officials?

Can you find good statistics online?

Well, it’s not that easy to find a definitive list.

  • Given the frequency of references to this fear, it is puzzling that the Wikipedia entry for Glossophobia (fear of public speaking) has this warning on the top:

“This article is missing citations or needs footnotes. Please help add inline citations to guard against copyright violations and factual inaccuracies. (October 2007).”

Notice the date.  2007.  It’s near the end of 2009 as I write this.

  • Try searching Google Scholar and looking for the clinical term “speech anxiety” and you might have better luck.

Some statistics, from a real study

Now here is an interesting article (which I found via Google Scholar) that actually provides you with specific data from a group of people who were surveyed about specific fears.  What do you think?

Setting diagnostic thresholds for social phobia: considerations from a community survey of social anxiety

MB Stein, JR Walker and DR Forde
Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada.

Am J Psychiatry 1994; 151:408-412
Copyright © 1994 by American Psychiatric Association

OBJECTIVE: The goal of this study was to gain a broader perspective on social anxiety in the community than has been achieved by epidemiologic surveys to date. METHODS: The authors conducted a telephone survey of social anxiety among 526 randomly selected respondents in a medium- sized Canadian city. RESULTS: Sixty-one percent of the respondents reported being much or somewhat more anxious than other people in at least one of the seven social situations surveyed. Speaking to a large audience (i.e., public speaking) was the most frequently feared situation (endorsed by 55.0% of the respondents), followed by speaking to a small group of familiar people (24.9%), dealing with people in authority (23.3%), attending social gatherings (14.5%), speaking to strangers or meeting new people (13.7%), and eating (7.1%) or writing (5.1%) in front of others. When the threshold for caseness was systematically modified–by altering the required level of psychosocial interference or distress or by including or excluding subjects with pure public speaking phobia–the rate of “social anxiety syndrome” in the community varied from 1.9% to 18.7%; 7.1% was the prevalence when the criteria were set to conform with DSM-III-R. CONCLUSIONS: Social anxiety is common in the community, but precise delineation of the prevalence of “social phobia” depends heavily on where the diagnostic threshold is set. If DSM-III-R criteria had been applied in previous epidemiologic studies, it is likely that those studies would have documented prevalences of social phobia that are several times as high as the currently accepted rates.

Wait a minute …

Perhaps you can discover from this article how the respondents could accurately report that they are “somewhat more anxious than other people” in these areas — how do they know how anxious other people are?  Do we walk around with an “anxiety-ometer” on our foreheads?

What can one reasonably claim about the fear of public speaking?

Based on the many examples above, you could reasonably open your speech or advice with this kind of reasoning:

The fear of public speaking seems to be a common theme of surveys on phobias.  Many have claimed that it is almost as commonly felt or experienced as the fear of death.

Man, that sounds really clumsy now.

But why do you need to generalize about “people” and their fears in a pseudo-authoritative way?  Why do you need to refer to surveys?  Have you actually seen any official survey results yourself, or did you just hear it second-hand, or from somewhere you can’t remember?

Why not find some less tired-out cultural belief to begin your essay or speech?  Maybe use a personal narrative.

Good luck writing your speech or article, and don’t exaggerate the fear of public speaking.  You’re probably not going to die.

16 thoughts on “Fear of public speaking — a worn-out cliche?

  1. Tania:

    There are some serious surveys done by psychologists and psychiatrists that show fear of public speaking usually is at the top of lists of social fears. Most people instead quote the 1977 Book of Lists, which actually came from July 1973, as I discussed here:

    http://joyfulpublicspeaking.blogspot.com/2009/10/14-worst-human-fears-according-to-1977.html

    The biggest US survey by Ruscio et al from just last year is almost never cited in blogs or articles about public speaking: http://joyfulpublicspeaking.blogspot.com/2009/06/fear-of-public-speaking-affects-1-in-5.html

    There is another larger Canadian study from 2000 by Stein, Laine, Torgrud, and Walker

    http://archpsyc.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/57/11/1046

    Richard

  2. Thanks very much, Richard. These resources will be very helpful for people reading this article and wanting to back up their claims about the fear.

    I noticed in the January 2009 article by Ruscio that “The social phobia section [of the survey] assessed lifetime experiences of shyness, fear, or discomfort in each of 14 social situations,” among other measures.

    The fear of DEATH or physical harm are noticeably EXCLUDED from the possible answers in this semi-structured question, which means it did not distinguish between social fears and relatively non-social fears.

    They also seem to distinguish a general “social phobia” from having specific “fears.” In this area of the survey, results showed “Nearly one-fourth (24.1%) of all respondents in the survey reported at least ONE lifetime social fear…. The most common lifetime social fears among those considered here are PUBLIC SPEAKING (21.2%) and speaking up in a meeting or class (19.5%).”

    Interestingly, many other measures on their chart also included speaking activities:

    Talking to people in authority 14.7
    Talking with strangers 13.1
    Expressing disagreement 12.4

    The respondents were “asked about interference caused by SOCIAL PHOBIA in the domains of home management, work, close relationships, and social life during the month in the past year when social phobia was most severe. Each domain was self-rated by respondents on a 0–10 scale reflecting the extent to which social phobia interfered with the respondent’s ability to function in the domain.”

    Unfortunately the “role impairment” results were about generalized “social phobia,” NOT EACH specific fear (such as the fear of public speaking). Naturally those who are afraid of more things report being more impaired: “Across role domains, the subgroup with 1–4 fears generally is least impaired while the subgroup with 11+ fears is most impaired.”

    Since so many fears were clustered around speaking, it is not surprising that so many people had more than 4 of the fears that were listed. Very few of the options had to do with non-speaking situations, and these had lower scores:

    Entering an occupied room 11.9
    Working while being watched 11.8
    Writing/eating/drinking while being watched 8.1
    Using public bathroom 5.7

    and the survey even allowed for the option of…

    Other performance or interactional fear 15.7

    … which may also have boosted the respondent from having 4 fears to having 5 fears.

    None of the survey options included the fear of illness or death or paranormal phenomena or poverty or hunger or thunder or water or heights or being lost in the wilderness, or being alone, etc.

    Therefore, in comparison with the other items listed, I am not surprised with the high prevalence of the fear of public speaking. It certainly looks like the scariest thing on the list!

  3. Pingback: Public Speaking Tips [2009-11-21]

  4. Thank you for this exhaustive article, Tania.

    I’ve written on this several times; I find it frustrating and annoying when speakers use this statistic without supporting it.

    We all get that people are afraid of public speaking. But more than death? And anyway, why promote this negative view of public speaking over and over? Here are some of my blog posts on this issue:

    http://coachlisab.blogspot.com/2008/10/stop-focusing-on-fear.html

    http://coachlisab.blogspot.com/2008/10/snakes-top-public-speaking-in-gallup.html

    http://coachlisab.blogspot.com/2006/12/book-of-lists.html

  5. I am going to give an imformative speech on the fear of speaking. What would be some things to know that arent that common?

  6. Hi Samantha.

    I’d say there are some not-so-well-known facts in the scholarly articles I cite (regarding the degree to which people feel the fear, in what situations, and what other fears it is compared with).

    Consider the converse, or the irony, or the underside of the fear. For instance, I try to make the point here that underlying the fear of speaking is its importance in our lives. If we didn’t value it so much, we would not be afraid of doing badly.

    How about discovering your own experience of the fear of speaking? If you think about it you might come up with some insights about why you personally might feel fear (and when you don’t), what is normal or acceptable about it, and how you have handled it in the past.

    For example, it is my opinion, based on experience and coaching others, that a moderate degree of fear of speaking can be good for thorough preparation and respect for your audience (see Cicero, above), that few people in the audience will visibly notice moderate to mild nervousness (after some excellent speeches I ask the presenter “did you feel nervous or afraid” and they usually say “yes”), and that your fear will tend to subside as you get into your speech … IF you focus on what you are saying and feel passionate about communicating it.

    In my experience the best medicine is to focus on contributing value and insight to your audience with your message, rather than focusing on yourself (i.e. worries about your appearance and delivery and any small mistakes you make).

    This is the irony — the more you focus on the fear the more power you give it. I once saw a skydiver crash into a rooftop because she kept looking at it … over the radio we could hear her keep saying she was afraid to crash into the roof. But the more she looked at the roof she feared, the more her shoulders and body faced the direction she did not want to go. If only she had looked at the target spot on the ground… (yes she was okay in the end, no injury).

    The more you focus on the audience as the ones who can gain from what you are saying, the more you will overcome your fear of them.

    Dealing with fear by diminishing your audience (like imagining your audience naked or dismissing their opinions as less valuable than yours) is NOT a good idea… audiences can “smell it” when you don’t respect them.

  7. Great Article!!!!

    Everyone has some change in energy when it comes to Public speaking. It is natural.

    What is not natural is labeling it nervousness – that is a choice.

    We can lable it excitement, fun or nervousness.

    It’s a choice.

    Greta article.

    Cheers

    Darren Flemign
    Australia’s Corporare Speech Coach

  8. Hi Edurhetor,

    This is great post,

    When you focus on the right things, you can always make the most of any presentation.
    I am learning more and more about overcoming the fear of public speaking and found your information really very helpful

    Keep Blogging!

  9. Pingback: Death by Public Speaking » Adrienne Randall

  10. Thanks for this article! I am making some videos to help my students with their presentation skills, and I’m citing you in them! I can’t stand it that everyone quotes that study without referencing it. It really has become a cliche that we now have to fight against to make people realize that public speaking is actually a fear that people have.

  11. Pingback: Fear of public speaking is #1!? | Technical Presenter

  12. I found your point of view really interesting. It made me reflect on where we have misidentified and misapplied fear, as well as where we have agreed and aligned with the reality of other’s. A further reminder, to always choose what feels best for oneself. Thank you.

  13. Pingback: Edu*Rhetor’s 2010 in review | edu*rhetor

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s