The Fear of Public Speaking – Fear of Speaking Before a Group

By Christopher John Green 

Have you heard of a survey that states that the greatest fear people have is the fear of public speaking?

Jerry Seinfeld made fun of these findings when he said:

“A recent survey stated that the average person’s greatest fear is having to give a speech in public. Somehow this ranked even higher than death which was third on the list. So, you’re telling me that at a funeral, most people would rather be the guy in the coffin than have to stand up and give a eulogy.”

Fun as his comment is, there is a lot of evidence that people do have a fear of public speaking. We don’t need surveys for this, heck we know big guys who become sweating wrecks when they deliver a speech. Maybe (just maybe) you, rather like me, have been there yourself.

How Many People Have A Fear of Public Speaking?

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The most famous survey, which identified the fear of public speaking as peoples #1 fear was the 1973 Bruskin survey published in David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace’s book, “The Book of Lists”.

3,000 Americans were asked to list their greatest fears. The largest group – 41%- reported that their greatest fear was speaking in front of a group. This fear was followed by a fear of heights, insects, financial problems, deep water, illness, death, flying, loneliness, and dogs.

Speaking before a group 41%
Heights 32%
Insects & Bugs 22%
Financial problems 22%
Deep Water 21%
Sickness 19%
Death 19%
Flying 18%
Loneliness 14%
Dogs 11%
Driving a car 9%
Darkness 8%
Elevators 8%
Escalators 5%

Surveys of course, only answer the questions you ask. Many surveys show respondents a list of options; so if your pet fear is not on the option list you might plumb for something that is on the list.

Likewise, a survey can be biased by the sample of respondents. For instance, a sample that is weighted to over 65 year olds might produce a different set of results compared to a sample biased towards twenty something college graduates.

Finally, surveys reflect people’s opinions at a certain moment in time.

In Bruskin’s famous survey, conducted in 1973, the fear of deep water was top choice for 19% of people. Two years later “Jaws” was released. I wonder if that 19% would have moved up in movie goers minds?

Similarly, this survey of Americans in 1973 has no mention of terrorism, whereas maybe, today, a terrorist attack would be more front of mind.

So Has The Fear of Public Speaking Diminished Over Time?

You might think so but…

In 1993, the Bruskin/Goldring Report followed up on the previous research with a survey asking 1,000 adults “about the things of which nightmares are made… ” Again, speaking before a group topped the poll.

And even more recently…

In 2001 a Gallup Poll about American’s fears still had 40% fear speaking in public.
Public speaking had actually fallen to the #2 spot behind… snakes (51%).

The full results of the Gallup poll of fears (2001) were:

Snakes 51%
Public Speaking 40%
Heights 36%
Confined Space 34%
Insects & Spiders 27%
Needles/Injections 21%
Mice 20%
Flying 18%
Dogs 11%
Thunder & Lightening 11%
Crowds 11%
Doctors 9%
The Dark 5%

What is interesting, is that many of the fears in the 1973 survey were still there nearly 30 years later. Indeed the top 3 from Bruskin’s survey were all still in the top 5 of the Gallup poll, and their percentages had hardly changed.

I am aware of a Discovery Channel Poll about “fears” from about 10 years ago that also had the fear of public speaking in it’s top 10.

There was also an ABC special report called “Signs of Fear” which listed the fear of public speaking in the #1 spot.

More recently, according to a survey for Reasontospeak.com conducted by Newspoll in Australia, Public Speaking is feared almost as much as death!

The research shows that 23 per cent of Australians fear speaking in public more than death, compared to 27 per cent who ranked death as their number one fear.

I am not precious about what tops different “fear” polls at different times.

What is conclusive, is that over the years, the fear of public speaking causes of lot of serious worry to a considerable amount of people.

Well, research shows that women have a greater fear than men. I don’t know the reasons for this. I do know that many women find it difficult to project their voices. I also know a fair few men who are supremely confident at standing up & holding forth. In fairness, quite a few of those characters that I have seen in action might not need coaching in overcoming fear but certainly need coaching in how not to bore the pants off their audience!

Generally, the more educated someone is, the less fear of speaking to an audience they have. This probably has something to do with giving presentations at college etc.

But again, not having fear is very different from actually being any good at it!

According to the Reasontospeak.com study in Australia, 25 per cent of the 35 to 64 age group fears public speaking more than death, compared to only 18 per cent of the 18 to 34 age group. Maybe younger adults are less fearful, but it could be that older adults are reaching leadership positions where the results of public speaking have far greater impacts on company financials & employee morale than young managers who are starting out on their careers.

The survey author actually said “Most company executives spend, on average, 85 per cent of their time speaking and listening as opposed to writing. So public speaking becomes a crucial communication skill to anyone in the world of work, as well as being a vital component in career advancement.

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I personally, look around the world & my community and think that there are far greater things to worry about than Public Speaking. Of course, we all have nerves when we are about to step into the spotlight. I don’t think those nerves differ whether you are making a financial presentation to investors or making a wedding speech or an after dinner speech at the golf club dinner.

The Key is to learn and practise skills such as:

· Speech Writing – how to start and how to end a speech, logical flow etc.

· Speech Delivery – being heard, sounding interesting, sounding authentic

· Body language – eye contact, stance, movement, gestures

· Impromptu speaking

· Preparation

· Understanding your audience

You can develop these by hiring a speech writer or public speaking coach, buying a self development course to study at home, attending a public speaking class or course, buying a book, or joining a training organisation like Toastmasters International or the UK Association of Speakers Clubs.

Speaking in public is just one facet of business communication, but it is a skill that becomes more important the higher up the leadership ladder you go. There is a sense of expectation from colleagues, employees, customers and third parties, that senior leaders can communicate fluently in any situation.

Take the time to develop this crucial communication skill to enhance your confidence so that you will do just fine, no matter where Fear of Public Speaking comes in the latest survey.

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