What We Fear More Than Death

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Pat LaDouceur, PhD, helps people dealing with anxiety, panic, and relationship stress who want to feel more focused and confident. She has a private practice ...Read More

You’ve probably heard that public speaking is feared more than death itself. It sounds crazy, but that’s what people say. Is there any truth to this?

Certainly the vast majority of people rank fear of public speaking as number one – 75% according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. For some people, this means a fear of speaking to large groups. For others, it means speaking to even a single person if that person has the power to evaluate you, as in a supervisor, interviewer, or professor giving an oral exam. Prioritize your mental health with our easy and effective online anxiety quiz.


My client Robert was required to give presentations as part of his job. For most people, regular speaking builds confidence, and speaking gets easier over time. For Robert, however, they got more difficult. When he eventually had a full blown panic attack, he gave me a call.

Understanding Glossophobia

Glossophobia, commonly known as the fear of public speaking, is a term derived from two Greek words: “glossa,” meaning tongue, and “phobos,” meaning fear or dread. In simpler terms, it’s the anxiety or nervousness one feels at the thought of speaking in front of others.

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Glossophobia affects men and women in equal numbers, although men are more likely to seek treatment for it.

If you have experienced glossophobia, you’re in good company. Many professional speakers feel significant fear of public speaking. Actress Carol Burnett was so nervous she threw up before many of her performances. Investor Warren Buffet, richest man in the world in 2008, dropped out of a college speech class rather than talk in front of his peers.

Some people are anxious because they aren’t prepared. Preparation is essential. But many people are afraid to speak in public despite solid preparation.

In personal life, untreated glossophobia can lead to a gradual retreat from social situations. This avoidance can spiral into social isolation, as individuals might start shying away from gatherings where they might be asked to speak. Beyond this, there’s a significant impact on one’s self-esteem. Continuously dodging speaking opportunities can erode self-confidence, leaving individuals doubting their capabilities, which can extend beyond public speaking scenarios.

Professionally, the stakes can be high. Career advancement often hinges on one’s ability to communicate effectively. Those who grapple with an untreated fear of public speaking might find themselves passed over for promotions or leadership opportunities, simply because they’re unable to voice their ideas or lead a team effectively. This isn’t just about speaking in front of large crowds; even everyday interactions, like team meetings or networking events, can become daunting, limiting one’s potential to make an impact in their professional field.

But the story doesn’t end here. There’s a silver lining in confronting glossophobia. Engaging with this fear head-on is more than just learning to speak comfortably in public. It’s a transformative process that fosters resilience and self-assurance. As individuals work through their fear, they often find a noticeable boost in their overall confidence. This newfound confidence can open doors to opportunities that were previously hidden by the shadow of fear, enriching both personal and professional lives.

Moreover, this journey towards overcoming glossophobia often leads to improved communication skills, which are invaluable in almost every aspect of life. From expressing ideas more clearly to being able to connect with others more effectively, the benefits are profound. And perhaps most importantly, this process can lead to a decrease in general anxiety. Learning to manage the stress and fear associated with public speaking often equips individuals with skills to handle anxiety in other areas of their lives.

In essence, addressing glossophobia is not just about avoiding uncomfortable moments at the podium. It’s about embracing a path that leads to personal growth, stronger relationships, and a more fulfilling professional life. It’s an investment in oneself that pays dividends in countless ways, paving the way for a richer, more engaged experience of the world.

The roots of glossphobia

For some people, the roots of a fear of public speaking are buried deep in our past. For example, the fear can come from an experience where we were once embarrassed or ridiculed, or even overwhelmed with attention that was supposed to be positive. It might have been a “performance” situation, but it could just as easily have been an event that seems unrelated, such as how we were praised or corrected at home or school.

For others, the roots of their fear of public speaking are in an adult performance that didn’t go well…or didn’t seem to go well. When you perform again, the worrisome memories come back to haunt you They generate thoughts thoughts like, “I’m going to blow it,” “I don’t belong here,” “What if they don’t like me?” and so forth.

Either way, to the survival part of our brain, the situation looks dangerous. Your body gets ready to fight, flee, or freeze, which means physical tension, shaking, increased blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, sweating, and forgetting what you were about to say. Once in motion, the cycle of fear builds on itself.

What we really fear more than death

Most people, faced with a real choice between speaking and death would choose speaking. In a minute. Does that mean that speaking as a number one fear is a myth? Perhaps in part, but let’s look for a moment at how it might make sense.

Anxiety is about your brain trying to keep you safe. For public speaking, the voice of anxiety sounds something like this: “People won’t be interested in what I have to say. I don’t have anything to offer this group. If I make a mistake they’ll laugh at me. I’m not competent. I’m not really very good.”

The worst case? The group won’t like me. I’ll be rejected. I’ll be shut out.

Sure, I can rationalize it. I can tell myself that this group probably will like me; and that I don’t really care if they don’t. But our need to be accepted by our peers goes deeper than childhood. We evolved to be part of groups. We’re not the most ferocious mammals on the planet. Since our earliest history, we have needed to band together to survive. Exile often meant death.

Perhaps what we really fear is being shut out.

The usual strategy

Most people go to great lengths to avoid rejection. For many people, fear of public speaking causes them to turn down jobs, decline promotions, avoid interviews, and drop out of classes.

But avoidance doesn’t help. It narrows your choices, and makes the anxiety worse.

To master public speaking, you need two things. First, you need to be present, to keep your heart open when you’re in front of an audience. Second, you need to “rewire” your brain. As Albert Einstein said, “You cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it.” You need a “new” mind.

Some immediate steps you can take include:

  • Deep Breathing: Inhale deeply for a count of four, hold for four, and exhale for four. This helps calm the nervous system.
  • Positive Visualization: Imagine a successful outcome to your speaking event, picturing the audience responding positively.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Tense and then relax each muscle group, starting from your toes and moving up to your head.
  • Mindfulness: Focus on the present moment, acknowledging your thoughts and feelings without judgment.
  • Quick Physical Activity: Brief exercises like stretching or a short walk can release tension.

When your brain is calm and alert, you’re more able to handle the difficult people in the audience, and more able to connect with the people who are receptive. You’ll be a better speaker as well, because you’ll have the focus and energy to attend to your message and the audience.

“Rewiring” is not as mysterious as it sounds, but it does take some curiosity, thoughtfulness, and determination. A counselor specializing in performance-anxiety can really help speed up the process.

DARE to try this…

One way I helped Robert learn to feel confident about his speaking was by using the four step process described below. This process helped change the way Robert thought about speaking, and therefore the way he felt about it.

Let’s look at one of Robert’s thoughts: “I don’t have anything interesting to say.”

His usual approaches was do do one of these two things:

  1. Reassure himself: “Yes they will. I’ve worked hard on this, and it’s information they need. They’ll like it.”
  2. Avoid the problem: Consider calling in sick. Consider finding a new job.

An effective alternative is the DARE approach (a term I coined to help keep track of the four steps). Keep in mind that the steps below represent a conversation with yourself (or a coach, counselor, or friend). Deciding how to begin a speech or interview, or how to talk with a difficult employer is a different process. With that in mind, let’s look at what Robert came up with in about half an hour.

Step 1: Decide: is there any truth to this concern?

Robert: “The truth is that these presentations are required. I get good feedback overall, but I’m sure there are some people who resent having to come to them. No matter what I say, some people are going to find it boring.”

Step 2: Acknowledge the part that is true. Put words to it, and say or write it.

Robert: “I know this isn’t the most exciting presentation in the world for some of you.”

Step 3: Respond to the part that isn’t true. Challenge it. Offer a different interpretation.

Robert: “…but I have some information here that I think you’ll find valuable. I’ve done a good job organizing it so that it will be useful to you, and easy to find later when you need it.”

Step 4: Evaluate and repeat. How how confident do you feel as you say these things out loud? What could you change about the words, your posture, or your voice that would help you feel more confident?

Robert: “I feel a little more confident than I did – maybe 60%. I guess I could try speaking a bit louder, and dropping my shoulders.”

Using this process, Robert’s fear about public speaking dropped significantly in just a few weeks. In a few months, it was all but gone.

Why it’s worth doing

When people are asked about their greatest fear, fear of speaking comes to mind because it’s easy to imagine doing it. Even if you never speak to a large group, you’re likely to find yourself interviewing for a job, making a class presentation, or explaining your work to a group of colleagues.

Public speaking is scary because people matter. Even people who don’t matter…do matter. When you speak to a group of people, it’s natural to want to belong.

Fortunately there are simple, reliable strategies that can help you speak confidently in public – if it’s what you want to do. And why not?

Speaking is rewarding. If you learn to speak comfortably, you might learn, like Robert, to feel more confident and focused. Or you might learn a secret that many of the best speakers know: speaking is a way of banding together. It’s a way of belonging. At its best, speaking in groups helps us connect.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What is public speaking anxiety and why does it happen?

Public speaking anxiety, often termed glossophobia, is the fear of speaking in front of an audience. This can stem from a fear of being judged, making a mistake, or not meeting expectations. It’s a natural response, partly rooted in our evolutionary need for social acceptance.

Can public speaking anxiety be completely eliminated?

While it may not be possible to completely eliminate this anxiety for everyone, it can be significantly reduced through practice, preparation, and employing various coping strategies like deep breathing and positive visualization.

Is it true that everyone is a natural-born speaker?

This is a myth. Public speaking is a skill that can be developed over time with practice and training. Many accomplished speakers have worked hard to hone their abilities.

How do I deal with sudden anxiety during a speech?

If you feel sudden anxiety during a speech, pause briefly, take a few deep breaths, and try to refocus your thoughts on your message rather than your fear. Remember, brief pauses often go unnoticed by the audience.

Does imagining the audience in their underwear really help?

This common advice is more of a myth and might not be helpful for everyone. It’s often more effective to engage in positive visualization of your success or to focus on the message you are delivering rather than on the audience itself.

Is it better to memorize a speech or read from notes?

It depends on your comfort level and the context of the speech. Memorizing can make your delivery more natural, but it also risks sounding rehearsed or causing anxiety if you forget a part. Using notes can ensure you cover all points but might make your delivery less engaging. Practicing extensively can help strike a balance.

Do experienced speakers feel anxious?

Yes, many experienced speakers still feel nervous before or during a presentation. The key difference is they have learned to manage and channel this anxiety effectively.

Can public speaking anxiety affect my career?

If not addressed, it can limit opportunities for professional growth, such as leading meetings or presenting ideas. However, with the right strategies and practice, you can overcome this anxiety and enhance your career prospects.

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