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.
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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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?
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.
“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?
“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” ?
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.”
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 —
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- The Google Answers site on Q: Fear of Public Speaking provides several lists of top phobias, and in each one “public speaking” has a different rank among a list of fears. In some it is not listed at all.
- 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.