What Causes Fear of Public Speaking–And How to Overcome It

You may have heard the statistic that 75% of people have a fear of public speaking, also known as glossophobia. In fact, you may be familiar with this relatable quote from Jerry Seinfeld: “According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

If this feels familiar, you’re obviously not alone. But it’s important to know that fear of public or professional speaking can be overcome–you don’t have to let it hold you back. A qualified speech-language pathologist, also known as a speech therapist, can help you get over your fear and improve your confidence when communicating

How common is fear of public speaking?

There is actually little research to support the statistics mentioned above. There are studies that show 89.4% of individuals who experience social anxiety disorder have a fear of public speaking. That would mean the true percentage of people in the U.S. who fear public speaking is closer to 6% to 8%. Still, that’s approximately 27 million Americans!

Take this information in conjunction with a study involving college students. As many as 63.9% of the undergraduates within the following subgroups reported fear of public speaking: female gender, negative vocal self-perception, and limited socialization. In addition, as many as 89.3% of the students wanted to take a public-speaking training course. Unfortunately, most college programs don’t offer this. 

What is the impact of fear of public speaking?

Although we don’t have reliable statistics, we know many people live with glossophobia. And when that’s the case, they avoid the act of talking, which can impact their life in many ways. Recent studies conducted at Columbia University revealed the following:

  • Fear of public speaking reduces an employee’s wage potential by 10%. Most careers require talking with others, and fear of speaking can have a significant impact on a person’s ability to speak to groups of people. Individuals with this fear may settle for a job that doesn’t require as much talking, which often pays less.

  • Glossophobia reduces a person’s college graduation potential by 10%. People with a fear of speaking are likely to limit their socialization with others, which affects their college experience. Without a college degree, career choices are limited, which decreases earning potential.

  • Fear of public speaking reduces a person’s ability to obtain managerial and leadership positions by 15%. Most companies promote or hire people to these positions because of their ability to communicate with staff. Without the potential for advancement, those with glossophobia may have a stalled career and limited income.  

  • Individuals who fear public speaking may avoid seeking medical attention. Many people with a fear of speaking avoid contacting their doctor or other health care provider. Over time, this could lead to serious health problems and even be life-threatening.

These statistics are all concerning, but to top it off, the studies revealed that only 8% of people who experience fear of public speaking seek intervention. Very few people who live with this fear will take steps to overcome it, although speech therapy is an effective treatment for glossophobia.

Very few people with this fear take steps to overcome it, although speech therapy is an effective treatment.

Of course, it’s understandable that people avoid seeking treatment. Confronting fears isn’t easy. However, speech therapists can help people gradually take steps toward reducing their fear and improving confidence in communication. 

What does fear of public speaking feel like?

When we are confronted with fear, our body responds in a fairly reliable manner. These responses can include physical, verbal, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive symptoms. 

  • Physical symptoms: Increased heart rate and breathing, which affects the ability to speak with a calm and controlled voice

  • Verbal symptoms: Stuttering, dry mouth, trembling vocal tone

  • Emotional symptoms: Feelings of insecurity, nervousness, or embarrassment

  • Behavioral symptoms: Avoidance; problems relating to other people

  • Cognitive symptoms: Mentally fixating on all the things that could go wrong; worrying about sounding stupid or being judged

The good news is, you can actually use some of these symptoms to benefit your speaking. However, people who fear speaking generally experience a host of these symptoms and are easily overwhelmed by them, leaving them unable to communicate. 

What causes fear of public speaking?

If you think about it, standing up and speaking publicly requires every aspect of what would be potentially “bad for survival.” According to Scott Berkun, author of Confessions of a Public Speaker, the following conditions would have significantly threatened the safety of early humans:

Standing alone In an open territory with no place to hide Being without a weapon In front of a large crowd who are staring at you

So it’s no surprise that most of us get a little anxious when we’re asked to speak.

A few other theories contribute to our understanding of what causes fear of public speaking. According to an article in Psychology Today, most people experience a rush of adrenaline when they know they have to speak with a boss, meet a new in-law, present in front of a group, or even make a toast. It’s a natural reaction. However, some people don’t have tools to manage this rush of adrenaline and feel exposed. Treatment can help you understand this natural reaction and gradually learn how to experience success and gain confidence when speaking.

There is some evidence that hypercritical or overly protective parenting styles can affect a child’s self-esteem and confidence. In addition, people who have had negative experiences surrounding public speaking may feel sensitive about their skills. They may feel their opinions or views weren’t valued by others at an early age. In sessions, speech pathologists can help you shift your mindset and understand the flaw in these long-standing beliefs. 

Some people develop self-defeating thoughts that create a strong fear of being judged, embarrassed, or rejected.

Some people develop self-defeating thoughts, which they then carry as truths about themselves. “I’m not good at speaking.” “People will laugh.” “No one wants to hear what I’m talking about.” These beliefs create a strong fear of being judged, embarrassed, or rejected and lead to a standard of unattainable perfection. A speech pathologist can challenge these unhelpful thoughts and help you refocus your mind.

Finally, although the science is not fully understood, some experts believe glossophobia runs in families. According to the Mayo Clinic, it is difficult to separate the effect of genetics versus learned behaviors. Research does demonstrate that mice that showed less fear had offspring that were also deemed less fearful. 

How can you overcome fear of public speaking?

People with glossophobia may look at coworkers, newscasters, or teachers and wonder what they’re missing within themselves. When you think of a “good speaker,” what comes to mind? Many of us picture a heartfelt, authentic, and open speaker. So, that would make this the reality:

Fearful speakers make the best speakers. Listeners relate to an honest and heartfelt message. Fearful speakers are highly sensitive. Fearful speakers can learn to speak confidently. When fear is erased with knowledge, a speaker shares a sensitive and heartfelt message. Therefore, fearful speakers make the best speakers. 

Imagine that. Imagine being the speaker you always envied and thought could never be!  But how can you get there?

Speech pathologists work with clients on a number of strategies to improve their confidence when speaking. They might target goals such as “thinking of what to say,” “speaking without stuttering,” or even simply “feeling confident when I speak.” The key is to work with a licensed speech pathologist who has experience in this area. Expressable, for example, works with clients on both the physiological elements of speech (voice, articulation, stuttering, accent, and language) as well as the psychological elements, such as lack of confidence and fear of talking.

How speech therapy helps reduce fear of public speaking

You don’t need to have a problem with speech to benefit from working with a speech therapist. Many people simply have trouble managing their nerves and are convinced that they’re not good at speaking. Speech pathologists help clients demystify their “beliefs” and use strategies to increase confidence and communication skills in situations of greater difficulty. Your speech therapist will help you determine your goals, understand your challenges, change your mindset, and even breathe more effectively, all to achieve more confidence and get over your fear of public speaking.

What you have to say is important. If you’re experiencing a fear of speaking and would like to overcome this fear, consider consulting a speech pathologist. No one should resolve themselves to silence. Let us help you make the most of your voice today.  

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