Why Do We Fear Public Speaking?

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Seinfeld’s old quip about the widespread fear of public speaking rings true for many Americans, who often claim they fear public speaking more than they fear death. While the numbers don’t quite support that theory, they are staggering: 15 million American adults suffer from social anxiety, and nearly 30 percent of Americans report that they’re “afraid or very afraid” of public speaking. In fact, this fear is so widely accepted that many scientists researching stress will actually induce anxiety by asking study participants to give a speech.

Why is Public Speaking So Terrifying?


Academic researchers hypothesize that this intense fear of public speaking comes from evolution. In the past, when humans were threatened by large predators, living as a group was a basic survival skill, and ostracism or separation of any kind would certainly mean death. This may have evolved into the fear of public speaking — and it makes sense. What situation embodies that kind of separation more than standing all alone in front of a room full of people? On a deep level, people are afraid their audience will reject them.

Another theory states that when we enter a state of social anxiety, which is common in public speaking, our ability to pick up on angry faces is heightened. In a 2009 study, psychologist Matthias Wieser measured participants’ brain responses to angry, happy, and neutral images. In order to elicit anxiety, Wieser told some of the participants they would have to give a speech. The anxious participants were significantly more sensitive to the angry images than to happy or neutral ones, but the rest of the participants did not exhibit the same bias. It’s easy to see how this phenomenon becomes something of a vicious cycle in the context of public speaking. When we start out nervous, no matter how many people are smiling or nodding along, we’re apt to lock onto the one person who looks angry, which makes us even more nervous.

How Do Speakers Display their Fear?

It is common knowledge that nervous speakers experience sweaty palms and dry mouth, and often struggle to get their words out. But what do audiences actually perceive, and how can we make sure we appear cool and confident?

We used our communication analytics platform and database of communication samples from TED Speakers, Fortune 500 executives, politicians, and other leaders to identify the key indicators of confidence and fear. We compared the most confident presentations in our database to the least confident ones and found that, when it comes to showing fear, three metrics matter.

1.    Confident Speakers Exhibit More Passion

The most confident speakers demonstrate 22.6 percent more passion than nervous speakers, meaning their delivery exhibits the kind of energy and engagement that indicates they’re really invested in their topic.

Quantified Communications coach Briar Goldberg says many nervous speakers have a hard time being mentally present for their speeches. In some cases they essentially black out as they talk — the next thing they know, they’re walking off stage. In other cases, they become distracted by the voices in their head worrying that they’ve forgotten what to say next.

Either way, a disengaged speaker is more likely to give a presentation that sounds rote and monotonous compared to the passion a confident presenter can demonstrate.

2.    Confident Speakers Offer More Insight

We also found that confident speakers incorporate, on average, 1.2 times the insight of fearful speakers, meaning they’re diving below the surface of the topics they’re presenting on.

This finding matches our intuition — more confident speakers are comfortable thinking about and discussing their topics in depth and, likely, are people who’ve truly mastered the concepts they’re discussing. On the other hand, a nervous speaker may lose track of the more insightful information, or may not be as well versed in the material as her confident counterparts.

3.    Confident Speakers are More Inclusive

We were really fascinated by our third finding, that confident speakers use 46.9 percent more inclusive language than nervous speakers, meaning they’re using collaborative words and personal pronouns to help the audience feel more involved in the message.

This finding could indicate that the most confident speakers are community oriented, and suggests that camaraderie-driven language can help nervous speakers build confidence by overcoming that evolutionary fear of ostracism.

So How Can I Become a More Confident Speaker?

If you’re nervous about an upcoming speech, most coaches will offer general tips like “be prepared,” or “breathe and stretch to calm your nerves,” or “remember the audience is on your side.” These are all great strategies, but the metrics above offer more specific advice. If you’re nervous, channel that nervous energy into demonstrating your passion for the topic at hand as you share your best insights with your audience — and be sure to include the kinds of collaborative language that will help you and your listeners feel like part of the group. By focusing on these strategies, you’ll convince your audience you’re a confident and fearless presenter.

And we’d be willing to bet, once you’ve mastered these techniques, you’ll find you really are a confident and fearless speaker.