Public Speaking Anxiety

Definition, Examples and Solutions

"I turn pale at the outset of a speech," said the great Roman orator Cicero, "and quake in every limb." (Quoted by Scott Stossel in My Age of Anxiety, 2014). De Agostini/G. Dagli Orti/Getty Images

Public speaking anxiety (PSA) is the fear experienced by a person when delivering (or preparing to deliver) a speech to an audience. Public speaking anxiety is sometimes referred to as stage fright or communication apprehension.

In The Challenge of Effective Speaking (2012)R.F. Verderber et al. report that "as many as 76% of experienced public speakers feel fearful before presenting a speech."

Examples and Observations

  • "In a 1986 study of about a thousand individuals, researchers discovered that people identified public speaking as their number-one fear. Public speaking anxiety even outranked such fears as going to the dentist, heights, mice, and flying." (Sheldon Metcalfe, Building a Speech. Wadsworth, 2010
  • "Surveys show that the number one fear of Americans is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. That means that at a funeral, the average American would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy." (American comedian Jerry Seinfeld)

Causes of Public Speaking Anxiety

  • "[M]ost people's . . . anxiety about public speaking exists for six reasons. Many people are . . . anxious because public speaking is
    1. Novel. We don't do it regularly and lack necessary skills as a result.
    2. Done in formal settings. Our behaviors when giving a speech are more prescribed and rigid.
    3. Often done from a subordinate position. An instructor or boss sets the rules for giving a speech, and the audience acts as a critic.
    4. Conspicuous or obvious. The speaker stands apart from the audience.
    5. Done in front of an audience that is unfamiliar. Most people are more comfortable talking with people they know. . . .
    6. A unique situation in which the degree of attention paid to the speaker is quite noticeable... Audience members either stare at us or ignore us, so we become unusually self-focused."
    (Cindy L. Griffin, Invitation to Public Speaking, 3rd ed. Wadsworth, 2009)

6 Strategies for Managing Anxiety

(adapted from Public Speaking: The Evolving Art, 2nd ed., by Stephanie J. Coopman and James Lull. Wadsworth, 2012)

  1. Start planning and preparing your speech early.
  2. Choose a topic you care about.
  3. Become an expert on your topic.
  4. Research your audience.
  5. Practice your speech.
  6. Know your introduction and conclusion well.

Suggestions for Handling Fear

(adapted from Business Communication. Harvard Business School Press, 2003)

  1. Anticipate questions and objections, and develop solid responses.
  2. Use breathing techniques and tension-relieving exercises to reduce stress.
  3. Stop thinking about yourself and how you appear to the audience. Switch your thoughts to the audience and how your presentation can help them.
  4. Accept nervousness as natural, and do not try to counteract it with food, caffeine, drugs, or alcohol prior to the presentation.
  5. If all else fails and you start getting the shakes, pick out a friendly face in the audience and talk to that person.

Speaking Strategies: A Checklist

(adapted from The College Writer: A Guide to Thinking, Writing, and Researching, 3rd ed., by Randall VanderMey, Verne Meyer, John Van Rys, and Patrick Sebranek. Wadsworth, 2009)

  1. Be confident, positive, and energetic.
  2. Maintain eye contact when speaking or listening.
  3. Use gestures naturally--don't force them.
  4. Provide for audience participation; survey the audience: "How many of you . . .?"
  5. Maintain a comfortable, erect posture.
  6. Speak up and speak clearly--don't rush.
  7. Reword and clarify when necessary.
  8. After the presentation, ask for questions and answer them clearly.
  9. Thank the audience.

Multiple Strategies

  • "Sometimes you may need several different pressure-fighting strategies at once--as when you find yourself delivering an important presentation that you've practiced to perfection while at the same time you have to field difficult questions on the fly. To succeed in this pressure-filled situation, you will not only have to combat worries, you will also have to make sure you don't exert too much control over your well-practised speech routine. Understanding why different high-pressure situations can derail performance allows you to pick the right strategy to prevent choking." (Sian Beilock, Choke. Free Press, 2011)

Thinking Makes It So

  • "If people feel their public speaking skills can meet or exceed the audience's expectations, then they will not perceive the situation as threatening. If, however, people do not feel their skills are adequate to meet audience expectations then the situation will be perceived as threatening. Cognitive theorists believe that thinking counterproductive thoughts like this triggers public speaking anxiety. When people perceive public speaking as something to be feared, the perception elicits physiological reactions appropriate to a situation in which the person's physical well-being is threatened (increased heartrate, sweating, etc.). These physiological changes reinforce the person's definition of the situation as something to be feared." (Joe Ayres and Tim Hopf, Coping WIth Speech Anxiety. Ablex, 1993)

Welcome Nervousness

  • "[T]he trick to managing nervousness is starting to think of being nervous simply as being alive. . . .
    "I recommend you say to yourself, 'Wow, I'm nervous. Excellent! That means I'm alive and have energy to spare. What should I do with this spare energy? Give it away--knock the socks off my audience.'
    "As you learn to do this--to welcome nervousness, breathe into it, and recycle it as additional commitment and animation--you may actually begin to look forward to it, to try to be nervous if you aren't nervous." (Frances Cole Jones, How to Wow: Proven Strategies for Selling Your [Brilliant] Self in Any Situation. Ballantine Books, 2008)