“The Fear of Speaking” – Toxic Phrase, Toxic Results


Words mean more than those we say and so it is with the phrase “the Fear of Speaking.” It’s a familiar, socially acceptable, and convenient phrase to explain away one’s reluctance to engage in Public Speaking. And it’s the very common use and acceptance of the phrase that does more to produce less from a majority of citizens by discouraging civil participation in public conversations that might be important, even crucial, to their well-being.

The statistics generated by a recent Google search indicate that about 75% of people polled say their #1 fear is “The Fear of Speaking.” When I first became aware of a “Fear of Speaking” statistic in 2009, it was reported at 45-50% in a similar search. Whether the polling is more accurate or the people are becoming more fearful doesn’t alter the fact that the challenges we and our planet face are increasing in number, complexity, and cost.

Well, what about the solutions? I do know that complex challenges almost always require complex solutions, often enabled by collaboration of pieces of information. More people, more input. More input, more opportunities to find a solution. No guarantees, but less isn’t always more.

Take a crossword puzzle for example. If the puzzle was designed using all 26 letters, but I was only given 8 letters to choose from, my chance of a successful solution is severely diminished. Although I might not require all 26 letters to complete the puzzle, every additional letter improves my chances. Based on my experience with crossword puzzles, my skill with words, and a little luck, I might solve it with less than 26 letters. But almost always, more input is better.

At this critical time nationally and internationally when we sorely need massive input to arrive at effective solutions, we’re not getting it. We don’t get the input of half-to-three-quarters of our population. What we do have is Delegation not Participation. Commenting with the click of a mouse is an action, but not to be confused with standing-up and saying “I have an idea.” It’s less embarrassing, or so it seems, to say to yourself and to others “I can’t speak in public, I have a fear-of-speaking, it’s called Glossophobia.”

My experience teaching & coaching Public Speaking in group workshops and with private clients, indicates that most people don’t suffer with clinical Glossophobia. Nor do they suffer with Communication Apprehension. When confronted with Speaking, anyone may experience anxiety, nerves, sweats, nausea, dry mouth, stage fright, insecurity, or a desire to be, at that moment, somewhere else.

But, on the other hand,

These same people don’t experience an intense, unreasonable fear of leaving their homes and mixing with people in a public place. They don’t fear the possibility of talking in public to a store clerk, an Agent at an airline ticket counter, or the waitperson at a restaurant. Most people frequently talk in public to their family, friends, co-workers, fellow travelers and dozens more known and occasionally unknown people. It’s ‘life’.

Speaking anxiety can present itself when there’s a requirement or expectation to speak to a Group, any group: a class, meeting, seminar, social dinner or professional event. Many people will go to great lengths to avoid even the possibility of Public Speaking. With a knee-jerk response they’ll say “I can’t speak to a group!”, “I’m not a good speaker… really.”, “Oh, I couldn’t do that!”, or any other statement that essentially says “I have a Fear of Speaking.” And if statistics are correct, most of the people you say that to will nod in agreement.

If you do a web search for the phrase “Fear of Speaking”, you’ll get a return of approximately 126,000,000 responses. Amongst those responses are countless organizations that have a solution for your “Fear of Speaking.” The phrase has become a ubiquitous banner, a universal flag to get your attention. This marketing strategy clearly must work because almost every organization employs it upfront. It’s a drum-beat: sell the Fear, the Fear, the Fear…

I suppose if any phrase is used often enough, people not only accept it, eventually they embrace it. Unfortunately the embrace of “The Fear of Speaking” has become a death-grip. It strangles initiative. The phrase has become more than it’s words, more than an indicator of social anxiety, more than an excuse. It has become a justification for non-participation in public conversations that might be important, even crucial, to a persons well-being, and by association to the well-being of the rest of us.

The usefulness of the phrase “The Fear of Speaking” is over. It’s time, overdue actually, to recognize the phrase for what it is and what it isn’t.

The phrase “The Fear of Speaking” is a description of Glossophobia which is an extreme or irrational fear of, or aversion to, Speaking in Public. Well, I can’t recall, ever, meeting someone who suffered with an extreme, irrational fear of speaking in public. And if the 75% statistic is correct, I would have experienced at least one encounter with a true Glossophobic. Don’t you think? But never, and I’ve traveled to many places and talked to many people.

On the other hand, I have met more than several people who had an aversion to Public Speaking. Aversion seems more common, more probable. But the “The Fear of Speaking” and Glossophobia are ubiquitous, sound serious and generate stronger feelings than “the aversion to speaking” ever could.