Fear of Public Speaking

The old joke goes like this: Polls show that public speaking is the number one fear in this country. More people fear speaking in public more than they fear dying. So at a funeral, more people in the audience would rather be the dead guy than the one giving the eulogy. Not true, obviously, but mildly amusing. Sam Harris writes about his own fear of public speaking:

Fear of public speaking is also a fertile source of psychological suffering elsewhere in life. I can remember dreading any event where being asked to speak was a possibility. I have to give a toast at your wedding? Wonderful. I can now spend the entire ceremony, and much the preceding week, feeling like a condemned man in view of the scaffold.

Pathological self-consciousness in front of a crowd is more than ordinary anxiety: it lies closer to the core of the self. It seems, in fact, to be the self—the very feeling we call “I”—but magnified grotesquely. There are few instances in life when the sense of being someone becomes so onerous.

And he makes this argument about those who don’t feel such fear:

Of course, many people have solved the problem of what to do when a thousand pairs of eyes are looking their way. And some of them, for whatever reason, are natural performers. From childhood, they have wanted nothing more than to display their talents to a crowd. Many of these people are narcissists, of course, and hollowed out in unenviable ways. Where your self-consciousness has become a dying star, theirs has become a wormhole to a parallel universe. They don’t suffer much there, perhaps, but they don’t quite make contact here either. And many natural performers are comfortable only within a certain frame. It is always interesting, for instance, to see a famous actor wracked by fear while accepting an Academy Award. Simply being oneself before an audience can be terrifying even for those who perform for a living.

I find myself somewhere in between on this one. I’ve never had a fear of public speaking at all that I can remember. I began speaking in public when I was 14 or so and I was never really nervous about it. I don’t know why. It certainly isn’t because I had some self-confidence that others lacked at that age (though I probably do now); I was a typical teenager with all the usual insecurities. I’m sure the thought of talking to a girl terrified me as much as the next guy, but getting up in front of an audience always seemed natural to me.

But I also don’t think that I’m a “born performer,” though I have performed in front of many audiences. I think Harris hits on the truth here:

Needless to say, I am not a born performer. Nor am I naturally comfortable standing in front of a group of friends or strangers to deliver a message. However, I have always been someone who had things he wanted to say. This marriage of fear and desire is an unhappy one—and many people are stuck in it.

I think I am also just someone who had things he wanted to say, but I had that comfort in front of an audience that Harris lacked for some reason. I don’t think that’s necessarily narcissistic, but it does at least suggest a bit of arrogance. Harris makes a big distinction between an author and a speaker, pointing out that while he is entirely comfortable writing a book he’s terrified of talking about that book in public. Thomas Jefferson was the same way. But as Mencken wrote decades ago, the root is probably the same:

The answer, it seems to me, is as plain as mud. An author is simply a man in whom the normal vanity of all men is so vastly exaggerated that he finds it a sheer impossibility to hold it in. His overpowering impulse is to gyrate before his fellow men, flapping his wings and emitting his defiant yells. This being forbidden by the Polizei of all civilized countries, he takes it out by putting his yells on paper. Such is the thing called self-expression.

This is exaggerated, of course, but there’s a core of truth to it. Call it arrogance or confidence, something like it is probably required to be comfortable standing up in public giving speeches. One almost has to think, at least subconsciously, “Of course people are eager to hear me talk about this. Who wouldn’t be?”

"I would have done that to get out of religious school if my grandmother had ..."

Catholic School to Punish Students for ..."
"No one cares about them because they ARENT THE TOPIC OF CONVERSATION. THEY ARENT THE ..."

AL Governor Thinks Moore Did It, ..."
"Hmm ? The light from our sun is undoubtedly white, but includes all the colours ..."

Catholic School to Punish Students for ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • jflcroft

    I’m not sure I agree. I was a little disappointed with Harris’ seemingly rather bitter disparagement of those, like myself, who love and revel in public speaking. I don’t think it has much to do with ego. Rather, I think it’s the belief that you have something valuable to contribute to others. This isn’t quite the same: I love to speak about Humanism because I think it is an important topic, and I don’t care if people want to hear ME speak about it – SOMEONE should (and it might as well be me).

    In a leadership class I once took we struggled with the question “Why me? Who am I to be the one offering this message?” I found great comfort and value in asking the question, instead, “If not me, who?”, “Who am I to keep silent on this issue?” I think, once you view it like that, speaking out becomes a responsibility – it’s not really about ego or confidence, I think.

  • http://cheapsignals.blogspot.com Gretchen

    I won’t attempt to diagnose or psychoanalyze people who enjoy public speaking…just say that I envy them. I would be over the moon to find it simply tolerable. Instead it makes me want to flee the room, or vomit, or flee the room while vomiting. I can manage to get through reading a prepared paper in front of strangers, but that’s about it. Speaking extemporaneously is a no-go. This is how I discovered that a career as a teacher was absolutely not in my future.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Having spent, well, a lot of time in front of a room full of people with a lot at stake:

    I was never afraid of speaking. If I was ever afraid, it was of having nothing to say. And since “having something that needed saying” was always part of standing up, speaking was never a problem. After that, the sheer challenge of getting the message across, fielding comments, etc. just took over.

    At least as engaging as a fast run down a ski trail: you just don’t have time or bandwidth to think of anything but keeping on top of it.

  • http://rockstarramblings.blogspot.com/ Bronze Dog

    There are sane people who are comfortable with public speaking (boy, do I wish I could do that), but I’ve seen a fair share of the insane narcissist types, especially in recent political news.

    Thinking about it, I wonder if there’s an attribute of pathological liars that might predispose them to the narcissistic public speaker archetype. Anecdotally, I’m biased to think so.

    As for writing versus speaking, I’m much more comfortable with impromptu blogging than I would be with a prepared speech. Contributing factors are that I don’t inadvertently sprinkle in ‘uh’ when I type, and there’s always backspace before I click ‘publish.’

  • Michael Heath

    I think the most overlooked factor when this topic is discussed is the value of coaching, drills and practice. We assume people either have talent and a knack for it or they don’t, rather than recognizing public speaking is a learnable skill which can be developed in a manner that would be helpful to many more of us than the few who serendipitously discover they’re naturals at it. Sure there’s people who could never become good at public speaking, just like there are some that could never excel at a particular sport. But I think most people could be become good enough to get by on topics where they can inform others.

  • tacitus

    Rather, I think it’s the belief that you have something valuable to contribute to others.

    It’s got to be more than that, though. I have the same believe, but I am one of those who has been pathologically afraid of public speaking. I’m not as bad as I used to be when I was younger — when I started my first job, I didn’t even like to answer the office phone — but the joke about speaking at a funeral rings true for me. My parents are getting on in age, and even though they are still in excellent health, it has crossed my mind on more than one occasion that I will eventually have to speak at their funerals.

    But I certainly do feel that I have something valuable to contribute, which is why I comment on a couple of forums and blogs. I also write, but the fear of judgement crops up there too. I have written a novel and several short stories which I’m quite proud of, but the thought of being judged by others has made me reticent to publish and publicize, and it’s very frustrating, believe me!

  • http://www.improbablejoe.blogspot.com Improbable Joe

    It is funny, because I’m outrageously terrified of speaking in public, and apparently also really really good at it. When I was a really little kid I used to act in all the school plays, so maybe I have some natural performer in me. By the time I was a teenager that was all gone, and even answering questions in class left me a bit shaky.

    I took a speech class a couple of years ago, and I was more than a bit shaky in there, especially since I’m so much older than your average college student. I sat in the back panicking before every speech, and shaking and sweating afterwards. Turns out everyone else thought I was doing an incredible job and that I was cool and calm through the whole thing. I think it helped me to know that I wasn’t failing badly, and it helped them to know that I was nervous as hell the whole time.

    I still don’t love it, but now that I know that I’m pretty good at it I’m not nearly as bothered by it.

  • robb

    so teachers are narcissists? screw that.

  • wscott

    Another example of why I can’t stand Harris, even tho I agree with a lot of what he says. His thinking is completely binary: he’s afraid of public speaking, so anyone who isn’t must be a narcissist. Oh, he’s careful to add the requisite qualifiers – “some…” “may be…” – but he doesn’t waste any more words on the grey, it’s all black and white. [/rant]

    I’m with you, Ed. No one who knew me as a kid would ever have accused me of an excess of self-confidence. There were plenty of things I was terrified of; public speaking just was never one of them, for whatever reason.

    @ Michael Heath: I agree it’s a skill many/most people can learn. But I would say that the only time I ever became self-conscious about public speaking was ironically when I was consciously trying to improve my skills; I became far less natural and got more and more nervous because I was trying to remember all the “tips” I’d been given. I had to make a conscious decision to ignore a lot of that and just “be myself.”

  • wscott

    One tip I have found actually helpful: try to focus on individual members in the audience, rather than just a big crowd. Resist the urge to let your eyes glaze over and just talk to “the room” – talk to this person for a few seconds, then talk to that guy on the left, then talk to the woman in the back, and so forth. Most of us are okay talking to individuals, so pretend you’re talking to a series of individuals rather than a big scary mob. Works for me anyway. (But what does a narcissist like me know?)

  • plutosdad

    This is why I and many others feel more comfortable acting or improvising on stage than even talking one on one. Because I’m not me on stage, I’m playing someone else. Or even playing music. That is easy. No matter how many people are up there, I’ll feel a little nervous but the more I prepare the less nervous I feel. I enjoyed being on stage (for awhile at least) and felt more like myself there than when I was not on stage.

    But talk as myself to a group or even to one person? Try to meet someone and get her number? No way in hell could I do that. and if you’re self conscious and nervous, then the BEST thing a woman can do is say “no”, truthfully people say a lot worse to you when they know they can. Of course, this self-fulfilling prophecy only puts the nervous person into a downward spiral.

    But after watching many interviews with other actors, I realize I am not alone in those feelings. So where do we fall in his spectrum? We don’t fit his two molds at all.

    Though I admit I am pretty narcissistic.

  • Michael Heath


    Another example of why I can’t stand Harris, even tho I agree with a lot of what he says. His thinking is completely binary: he’s afraid of public speaking, so anyone who isn’t must be a narcissist. Oh, he’s careful to add the requisite qualifiers – “some…” “may be…” – but he doesn’t waste any more words on the grey, it’s all black and white.

    I’m a fan of Harris and I abhor binary thinking. All I see is probabilities where one can never be sure they have the relevant sets of premises to accurately gauge that probability.

    What I was and remain forced to do as a businessman is to insure I act in a timely manner. There is this corporate-culture truism described as ‘paralysis by analysis’, the fact is certainty is rarely attained and if one analyzes too long, they miss the market opportunity. My role in business is heavily analytic where I rarely ignore nuance but instead revel in it, typically building spreadsheet models to simplify understanding what core factors are driving the issue.

    What I see Harris doing is similar, for example his latest book Moral Landscape affords plenty of room to debate whether an action is moral or immoral based on his approach, but in the end we all agree we need laws in place which define whether an action is criminal or not criminal. Therefore one needs to come down on what actions should be prescribed based on one’s analysis. From this perspective Harris is easily qualified to see the nuance but also has sufficient confidence to take a stand. Of course we won’t always agree with the conclusions, but he does an excellent job of taking one a nuanced set of factors where I find thinking to arrive at his decision point as extremely well-thought out in terms of process. (I’m not sufficiently informed on some of the topics where he takes a stand to know whether his collection of data points is the correct set, but I am versed enough in how to develop optimal processes to know he uses an excellent one to reach conclusions on the types of issues he writes about.)

    This combination of analysis and decisiveness is a more advanced state of mind than those who merely like to nibble around the edges of a debate without having the balls to take a stand on the core points of a controversy. For that I say kudos to Mr. Harris. A good example of the opposite approach was John Kerry’s waffling on the 2003 Iraqi invasion; compare that to Hillary Clinton who took similar stands to Sen. Kerry but was far better at defending her decision points in hindsight whereas Mr. Kerry’s was cringeworthy enough for me to research his academic record. I discovered it was not better than George W. Bush’s.

  • geocatherder

    I attended a science program at a teaching-oriented university where the particular department I belonged to, at least, decided that all their undergrads would graduate being able to give a 10-15 minute speech, and all their graduate students would become skilled at talks of 20-25 minutes to over an hour. So EVERY major class required at least one of either a powerpoint presentation or a poster presentation. Practice definitely helped; by graduation most students, whatever their remaining discomfort with public speaking, could do so reasonably well.

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie

    I have NO problem with speaking in public. Man, I can go on for hours, whether I have anything to say or not. I LOVE flapping my jaws in public. I find it somewhat of a downer that when I speak the “public” kinda evaporates.

  • bananacat

    Wow. I am generally ok with public speaking, and I don’t like being told that I’m narcissistic and hollow inside.

    Different people feel comfortable doing different things. There isn’t just one right way to be a human and everyone who differs slightly isn’t some kind of freak.

  • Dennis N

    I’m definitely surprised that it is the number one fear. I can’t say I look forward to public speaking, but it’s not a big problem. I definitely rank losing my job or falling into debt as a bigger fear. So when I need to speak publicly at work, I do it.

    I most assuredly and more frightened to speak one on one with members of the opposite sex at a bar than a room full of people. I suppose it has to do with ratios, me spread out of 100s of people vs me directly with one person. Ah well, I find all social interaction gets easier with age.

  • cag

    Being one of the many with presentation anxiety, I usually start with a joke:

    “Ladies and gentlemen, I need your help. I suffer from presentation anxiety and psychologists say the best way to overcome this condition is to imagine your audience naked. Unfortunately I have a very poor imagination and my vision is rather limited, so please move forward and remove your clothes.

    Sir (Ma’am), it’s a joke. Sir (Ma’am)! Sir (Ma’am)?

  • sunsangnim

    I’ve known quite a few teachers who are star performers in the classroom, but giving a presentation to other teachers makes them extremely uncomfortable. Teaching is a performance art just like acting or playing a musical instrument. It’s quite challenging to engage an audience outside of your normal role.

  • http://sendmetogradschool.com/ Benjamin “Chuck Testa-cle” Geiger


  • wscott

    @ Michael Heath: I completely agree with you about timely decision making and the danger of analysis paralysis. But that’s not the problem here. What I see Harris doing here, and all too frequently elsewhere, is acting as if anyone that is in any way different from him must be mentally disturbed in some way. He seems to believe any motivation that doesn’t make sense to him is by definition an invalid motivation. It’s drawing bullshit caricatures of people, rather than actually trying to understand them.

    I hesitate to call it narcissistic, but arrogant certainly fits. YMMV.