4 Reasons Why You’re Afraid of Public Speaking



Public speaking is one of our most common and intense anxieties; having clear strategies in place can be hugely helpful for future presentations.

Fear. We all know the feeling from a terrifying experience at some point in our lives; intriguingly, however, research suggests that three-quarters of us experience it as a direct consequence of the experience (or even proposed experience) of public speaking or delivering a presentation in front of a group of people.

From my reading and conversations too many to mention, I have condensed the public speaking anxieties people have shared into four main areas. Conveniently enough, each one begins with a letter of the word FEAR. Using the FEAR acronym, I will now present four main reasons as to why we experience this dread of public speaking and some practical tips on how to combat them.


Never mind public speaking, we hate getting anything wrong. The fear of failure can deter us from any number of things, beginning in childhood. We dread raising our hand in class in case we give the wrong answer. We dare not learn an instrument or a language for fear of hitting a wrong note or mispronouncing a word. We sometimes avoid social situations or entering a relationship for fear of things ‘not working out’.

Little wonder, then, that the idea of delivering a pitch or presentation fills many with such terror.

Why is this? One possible explanation is this: we are social animals. Our survival once depended on our ability to speak and work collaboratively within a community. Exclusion from such a group would result in almost certain death at the hands of starvation, the elements or predators.

Time and social conventions have shifted immensely, but our biological make-up has not. You’ll have heard of it as the fight, flight or freeze. In our perception, speaking in front of a group of people separates us from them, placing our reputation and standing under an imaginary microscope. Our biological system treats this event the same way as a life and death situation. There is a rush of cortisol, the stress hormone. Muscles tense, the pulse races, the mouth goes dry, the palms sweat and pupils dilate, affecting our ability to see, focus or read note cards. Vital systems, such as digestion, are suspended, forcing chemicals to the muscles in the event of a sudden need to flee.

Public speaking induces fear as we believe losing our place, jumbling our words or stuttering are hallmarks of failure and could lead to social rejection.

This brings us to a critical question: what are your determiners for success or failure when it comes to public speaking or presenting? How can you expect to perform ‘perfectly’ something in which you have limited experience and need to learn? Try talking to Michael Jordan, who missed over 3000 shots in his career. Try talking to Edison about his light-bulb, or Fleming about penicillin, or JK Rowling when she couldn’t get Harry Potter published. If they didn’t ‘succeed’ every time, then perhaps we need to increase our tolerance of ‘learning by experience.’


So, what do you define as success when it comes to public speaking or delivering that critical pitch or presentation? Fear of failure suggests you have some sort of expectation you are worried about disappointing. Are you envisioning a standing ovation, a spellbound audience or a massive pay increase? Conversely, do you think you will be sacked or ridiculed if you struggle? Setting realistic expectations is the first step to overcoming fear. None of these things are likely to happen in the first instance. If your initial expectation is simply presenting some information, you will be less likely to be paralysed by the fear of failure and more empowered to speak according to what is achievable based on your current level of experience.

It is perfectly natural to be discouraged or disheartened by a previous setback. A painful break-up makes us more wary of relationships. A burn on a kettle incites a cautious attitude to hot items. A bad day at work can erode morale.

However, one experience of public speaking need not define our entire lives and it would be completely unreasonable to believe this will happen on every occasion. If we gave up on everything the first time we got something wrong, we’d never become proficient at anything! I certainly wouldn’t be reading, writing, driving a car, tying a tie or playing the piano. I would have quit every job, left every relationship and given up on all my dreams.

You may have had a previous setback with public speaking. I know one man who struggled with a presentation at work and avoided speaking in public for the next twelve years. This does not need to happen. I had a day at work some time ago that I would describe as a ‘bad day at the office’. I made some mistakes. I under-performed in certain areas. However, when I discovered I couldn’t have twelve years off, I slept on it and tried again the next day, and the next, and the next. Eventually, I refined the areas of weakness and became stronger as a result. This is a continuing process in every area of our lives – so why not apply it to the way we speak, considering it is something we need to do so often?

More effective presenting and public speaking are achievable. They are called presentation skills, not presentation gifts. You can develop these skills. The more opportunities you give yourself, the quicker you will improve. Don’t let one difficult moment erode your resilience. It will get easier and better with practice, but don’t quit before you’ve started.

JK Rowling didn’t get Harry Potter to a publisher at the first attempt, or even the first several attempts. She later said: ‘It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all — in which case, you fail by default.’ Sort of says it all, really.


We live in a world of comparison. We can barely make it through a minute, never mind a day, without weighing ourselves up against someone or something else and giving ourselves an inferiority complex. Whether it’s looks, cars, money, education, talents, houses, holidays or jobs, we only need to look around or open our social media feeds before we start putting ourselves down.

Social media is a minefield. I love it as a tool for keeping in touch with people the world over, but sometimes it can be anything but social. People can control what they want others to see. They can exaggerate, manipulate and filter information and photos to present the illusion that their life is perfect, their job is perfect, their house is perfect, their partner is perfect, their children are perfect and so forth. It is all too easy for us to become depressed as we wonder why our own lives don’t match up.

Public speaking can be another form of comparison. We might see someone that appears engaging, charismatic and confident and wonder why we don’t measure up. We feel like we have less to offer, less value to add and we can’t measure up to the opportunity. This comes back to setting realistic expectations and not quitting before we’ve-started. Everyone must start somewhere. There was a time that Michael Jordan couldn’t hold a basketball, Beethoven hadn’t touched a piano and Da Vinci hadn’t held a brush. Give yourself the time, space and exposure to speak and practice; you might just surprise yourself, then everyone else.


What if people make fun of me?

On 23 April 1910 in Paris, Theodore Roosevelt delivered one of his most oft-quoted speeches. The following quote forms the basis of Brené Brown’s excellent book, Daring Greatly, and summarises this concept profoundly:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I’ve often heard it said that you will never be criticised by someone working harder than you. I used to be deeply affected by bad press, but I now realise it often comes from insecure individuals looking to plaster over their own glaring deficiencies. I am working towards a place of quiet confidence where I am happy to try, learn and repeat. It’s a wonderful process once the shackles of fear have been discarded and you listen only to feedback intended to support your development.


In many conversations, people ask me if I’m still scared of public speaking. I’m certainly not ‘scared’ in the way I used to be — there was once a time when I was physically ill for weeks in the run-up and aftermath of any presentation because of the anxiety I felt. Am I still nervous sometimes? Absolutely. It’s the kind of wariness that spells a desire to perform well, to inspire others and capitalise on opportunities for growth, but I am no longer paralysed with terror in the way I once was when I am faced with a pitch, presentation or speech.

Can I promise you that you will someday feel no nerves at all? No, I can’t. Nerves are useful and, when properly channelled, improve performance. However, can I promise you that you can work yourself into a position where you can seize an opportunity instead of fleeing from it? Undoubtedly. If I can do it, you can too.

About the writer:

After years of suffering with crippling communication anxiety, Simon Day was left with two choices: spend his whole life hiding in the shadows and risk losing everything, or find his voice. Through a painful yet empowering journey of discovery, Simon has transformed from terrified teenager to UK award-winning speaker and communications coach. He now employs his communication skills as a leader in education and works under his self-built brand, Speak With Simon, to coach others seeking to lose their fear, find their voice and speak with greater power.

Website: ⁠⁠https://www.speakwithsimon.co.uk⁠⁠

LinkedIn: ⁠⁠https://www.linkedin.com/in/speakwithsimon⁠⁠

Twitter: ⁠⁠https://twitter.com/speakwithsimon1⁠⁠

Any thoughts expressed in this article are those of the individuals concerned. Please conduct your own due diligence.

Speak With Simon