« 3. Why people fear public speaking »

Written by Rachel Green. Director, The Emotional Intelligence Institute. She is the author of "Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking" and is one of only 800 people in the world with the highest level of accreditation in the professional speaking industry - CSP - Certified Speaking Professional.

One of the strongest and commonest emotions associated with public speaking is fear, and to a lesser extent anxiety and panic.

The fear of public speaking can be overcome

These are powerful emotions that can lead people to avoid public speaking altogether. Take heart! It need not be like this.

These emotions can reduce with the application of a number of different emotional intelligence skills to identify and manage them.

One aspect of emotional self-awareness, the first emotional intelligence competency, is not only being able to identify which emotion you are feeling in a given moment, but also why.

In this article we will therefore ask the question why do people fear public speaking?

If you freeze in front of a crowd or have sleepless nights before speaking in public, understanding where your fear of public speaking comes from could be the first step in solving it.

There are many reasons why people fear public speaking.

However, they can be condensed into a few main ones. We will consider five of them here.

Which of these may apply to your fears of public speaking?

Fear of public speaking cause 1: Fear of rejection.

Some people have a fear of public speaking because they have a fear of being rejected and being exposed. Standing up in front of an audience can leave them feeling exposed and vulnerable. They imagine that the audience will not like them, will not approve of what they say, or will reject them and ridicule them.

A fear of being rejected not only relates to a fear of public speaking, it is a common human issue. However, a fear of rejection can be particularly pronounced when speaking in public and in many people contributes to their public speaking fear. Does this apply to you?

Overcoming the fear of public speaking can be as simple as realising that most audiences are there for their own sakes.

They are more worried about themselves than they are about you as a presenter! It is a humbling thought. They might be worrying that you will reject, humiliate or pick on them, not the other way around.

Anyway, why would an audience en masse want to reject you if they have invited you to speak, or have come to hear you speak? It makes no sense to me.

Applying some key emotional intelligence skills, such as challenging the basis for your emotions, could help you here.

Want to engage your audience more easily and make your presentations more interesting? Book into our public speaking development package.

Fear of public speaking cause 2: Belief of failure and embarrassment.

People can have a lot of negative thoughts and feelings associated with speaking in public. They can imagine all sorts of dreadful things happening to them, believe that they are true and then worry themselves silly as if they are guaranteed to happen.

This public speaking fear is also related to the fear of rejection but it plays out in a specific way.

  • People imagine that they will go blank and forget what they are going to say.
  • They imagine they will look stupid or stumble over their words.
  • They imagine they will blush and everyone will notice and think badly of them because of it.

The cause of the fear, here, is your thinking.

One of my clients, Amy, who we recorded on the "Confidence in public speaking" recording was convinced she was going to fall over. How unlikely is that? Yet she believed it to be true.

Overcoming a public speaking fear, which is fueled by such negative thoughts, requires you to challenge the thoughts. Most of these thoughts are ludicrous and have no evidence to support them. However, thinking them is not the problem, believing them is. Do you believe the lies your mind makes up?

Believe them no more, they are feeding your speaking fear and are of no value.

If you listen to the "Confidence in public speaking" recording you will hear me working with Amy to overcome her fear of public speaking. After about an hour, she was able to let go of the paralysis she felt in front of an audience and to challenge the negative things she imagined would happen.

She went on to sing Karaoke in front of a hundred.

She applied some key emotional intelligence skills, such as creating more positive emotions through imagery, and went on to speak with ease. 

Fear of public speaking cause 3: Expecting nasty questions.

"I don't know enough", is an anxiety that underlies a fear of public speaking.

Where did we ever get the idea that we were supposed to know everything about our speaking topic? No one knows everything about their topic and nor do they need to. You need to know something the audience doesn't, that's all.

Yet for some people, the fear of public speaking stems from a fear of not knowing, of not being able to answer the questions. This anxiety is, of course, related to the first two causes of public speaking anxiety, but again is specific.

I have had clients say to me, "If the audience weren't able to ask questions, I would have no problem at all speaking in public". Similarly, some clients have said to me, "I don't mind giving my speech, it is the questions afterwards that scare me."

If this is causing you to be anxious when speaking in public, learn how to say "I don't know" graciously and in a way that leaves the questioners feeling really good about themselves.

This is a practical way to apply your emotional intelligence skills in this situation. You are managing your own emotions at the same time as managing theirs. Good work!

Want to improve your confidence as a public speaker so your audience wants to listen to you? Book into our public speaking development package

Fear of public speaking cause 4: Early life experiences.

Some of the people I work with have stage fright and a public speaking phobia. In these people especially, it is not uncommon to find their fears can be traced back to one incident where they felt dreadful in front of an audience. This may typically have happened in childhood.

  • For example, they may have been pushed to perform in front of their aunts and uncles and felt humiliated by their reactions.
  • They may have been speaking in the school assembly and forgotten their words and been teased about it afterwards.
  • Or they may have attended a surprise party and been shocked to walk into a room full of people all looking at them.

I have found the use of Simple Energy Techniques (SET - a form of tapping) useful here. It is a technique I use with many clients to help them develop their emotional intelligence and reduce the power of negative thinking. I can recommend it from my own personal experience.

It is important, I find, to tap on all the different aspects involved in public speaking and the fears of it.

We have a YouTube video on the technique if you want to try it for yourself, before deciding whether or not to get the help of a skilled practitioner to work with you.

Featured Video

SET reduces presentation anxiety & the fear of public speaking

Fear of public speaking cause 5: Self focus

Self focus instead of audience focus.

People who fear public speaking or hate giving presentations may feel as though the spotlight is on them. They may feel they are the centre of everyone's attention. They may think that they are all that matters to the audience. The more self-focused people are when speaking in public the more nervous I find them to be.

The good news is that presenting is not about you. The presenter is not the centre of the audience's universe. Each audience member is at the centre of his or her own universe. They often worry about themselves far more than they care about you.

Thus, the antidote to a fear of public speaking is to focus on the audience not on yourself. This is an excellent emotional intelligence skill to reduce anxiety. Consider:

  • Caring for your audience.
  • Helping your audience.
  • Speaking to your audience one-on-one and in a personal manner.
  • Helping the audience relax.
  • Being kind and generous to your audience.

If you want help in knowing how to do this, then I can help you with 1-1 coaching or by conducting a session for your group or organisation.

When the audience is relaxed it is easy to relax as the presenter. This is emotionally intelligent, surely?

I have been a professional speaker for many years and when I place my whole attention on my audience I have no anxiety or fear. When I start worrying about myself I can make myself anxious. Where is your focus?

How to improve your public speaking now.

Can you afford to have you or your team unable to engage their audiences? No! Organisations need to be represented by engaging speakers in order to get their message across as swiftly and effectively as possible. This applies to you if you are an executive or a manager too - do not bore your employees, your stakeholders or your board. We have a number of options to help you:

  1. Book into our public speaking development package.
  2. There is a definitive guide: "The beginners guide to being a brilliant MC".
  3. Read the book "Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking".

For more details or to make a booking e-mail us now or pick up the phone and call us.