The iconic comedian Jerry Seinfeld once made an observation about our fear of public speaking during his act. Seinfeld joked that “if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Like most humor, that statement was largely based on a foundation of truth, as speaking in public is one of our greatest fears.
In fact, an estimated 74% of the population suffer from speech anxiety or some aversion to getting up in front of several people and saying their piece. (Interestingly, slightly more women have a fear of public speaking than their male counterparts.)
This doesn't only make us shy at parties or prevent us from running for president of the PTA.
Our fear of public speaking can have a profound negative effect on our lives.
For instance, it’s estimated that people who have a strong fear of public speaking end up earning 10% less wages, graduate college at a 10% lower rate, and are 15% less likely to be promoted at their jobs.
Having an irrational fear of speaking in public has its own classification; called ‘Glossophobia.’
In fact, surveys show that people are even more afraid of having to speak in public than they are the second and third ranked fears: spiders and death, itself!
Why are we so terrified of vocally addressing a group of people, even to the point where it seems to be hard-wired to trigger our fight or flight response? Psychologists have three predominant theories why public speaking is one of the top fears for most people:
The Evolutionary Theory:
Human beings have always been social creatures, but far from just not being invited to the dance or winning the eye of someone you’d like to date, the need for social acceptance used to mean life or death – literally. In fact, for millennia, humans could only survive with the protection, shared resources, and collective work of a group. Still to this day, if we feel that our behavior or inadequacy in front of a group (like if we fail miserably while giving a speech) will ostracize us from the group, and therefore threaten our very survival.
The Traumatic Theory:
Another reason why we may be shaking in our boots when faced with the prospect of speaking or presenting in front of a group is that we’ve been scared from some traumatic experience in the past. Maybe we said something the first day of school that got us laughed at, bombed epically during a high school play, or were publicly humiliated by a competitor at work. No matter what the reason, those wounds are hard to get over.
The Neurological Theory:
Can it be that our fear of public speaking is just all in our head? Well, yes, according to some scientists who believe that our fear is really a neurological disorder called ‘selective mutism,' which forces our brains to fear then freeze in certain situations. While neurological problems with speaking in front of others is most likely an explanation in only extreme situations, studies point to an overactive amygdala (the part of the brain that regulated emotional reactions and decision making) as the cause of selective mutism – and our subsequent fear. Furthermore, new research suggests that selective mutism may also be caused by a social anxiety disorder, which affects an estimated 1 out of every 8 adults and children these days.
So, is there a cure for Glossophobia or your grave fear of public speaking?
Over the decades, there have been many proposed cures, antidotes, and techniques to help those who are mortified of giving their two-cents in public. In fact, a quick Google search for “overcoming fear of public speaking” reveals 298,000 results (just in English), and the same search on Amazon.com reveals almost 200 books on that exact topic.
Others have turned to hypnosis therapy, behavior modification techniques, and even anti-anxiety medications.
These days, only 8% of all people with Glossophobia ever seek professional help for their disorder, despite the impact it has on their lives.
However, unless they're suffering from an extreme case of Glossophobia, most people can get more comfortable and confident speaking in front of a group through preparation, practice, and basic coping strategies.
Get help, take small steps, and keep at it, and pretty soon your number one fear may become your passion!