Articles



Public-Speaking Phobia:
The Number-One Fear in America But Help Is Available

by Natalie H. Rogers, M.S.W.


Good Public Speaking Can Generate
Business and Enhance Careers

In the nineties, silence is no longer golden. Good verbal communication is highly valued. However, crossing over lines of profession, status, and gender, fear of speaking in public --documented as the number-one phobia in America-- continues to haunt millions of executives, students, volunteers, and entrepreneurs. Even salespeople and experienced presenters can feel great discomfort at the prospect of speaking in front of groups. The universal denial of this phenomenon is so acute that the Encyclopedia Britannica, which has references to lisping, stuttering, dysphasia, and aphasia, has absolutely no reference to public-speaking phobia.

I find that I have organized my entire career
around strategies to avoid speaking in public.
Each day brings a new possible threat.
It is like guerrilla warfare.
--Paul, insurance salesman.


Why do we have this problem? In my eighteen years of experience training professionals with a serious fear of speaking in public, I have discovered that people fall into two distinct groups. The first, and by far the larger, group are those who come from environments where parents taught that children should be seen and not heard. Humiliation at the hands of older siblings, teachers, or nuns also helped produce an inhibitory brain pattern in the individual that cancels the impulse to speak. One of my students reported that at her house there was absolutely no conversation allowed at the table when the family ate together. As a child, before she began visiting her friends, she thought that this was the norm. An attorney who attended one of my Talk-Power Stress Seminars for Public Speaking introduced himself by saying, "I couldn't believe the relief I felt when my sister's engagement was broken and I didn't have to make the toast."

Those with a background of fearing to speak out are left with a powerful sense that the audience will be critical and hostile. Even when this is totally unrealistic because there are staunch supporters present, the feeling of being judged returns as soon as the speaker stands in front of the group.

The second group is much smaller than the first (about 25 to 30 percent of the participants in my seminars). They report that earlier in life they used to speak all the time, act in plays, and be president of clubs. They came from supportive and loving environments. Yet they all report that one day they had an unexpected deeply humiliating experience speaking in public. It could have been a total thought-blocking, or feeling of panic, of being out of control. From that time on, they began avoiding opportunities to speak in public, until a full-blown case of public-speaking phobia developed.

Studies tell us that sudden phobias, like sudden fear of flying or of heights, develop from six months to two years after some traumatic event. Because of this time lapse, people do not ordinarily connect their sudden phobia with a stressful event in their lives. The fact is that sudden public-speaking phobias are like post- traumatic stress symptoms.

"I couldn't believe the relief I felt
when my sister's engagement was broken
and I didn't have to make the toast."

No matter how the phobia is acquired, the treatment is the same. It consists of systematic training to extinguish the inhibitory neural pattern in the brain. The training take a three-pronged approach:

  1. Physical training to teach the body to be calm at will. "Inner awareness body centering" training develops the neural patterns for detachment and loss of self-consciousness. Pacing training teaches students to speak more slowly and to pause at will.

  2. Skills for organizing information for a listening audience, not a reading audience, beyond the simple laundry-list method of stacking ideas.

  3. Cognitive restructuring. This is an examination of the emotional belief system of the participant to uncover the particular negative statements or admonitions that reinforce the inhibitory impulse. "I have the right to make a mistake" would be a helpful slogan for a person who came from a perfectionist home. For the person who feels that he or she is imposing on people by asking them to listen, which usually results in rushing through the presentation, a new entitlement to learn would be "I have the right to my speech time." In other words, all negative beliefs about public speaking must be examined in the light of one's adult knowledge and experience. They must be replaced by beliefs that support and encourage the participant to express his or her ideas in public.


The Importance of Correct Breathing

A simple example of good physical training involves correcting the poor way a person breathes just before doing a presentation. Usually at this moment, when one is tense in anticipation of hearing one's name announced, the stomach is locked and the breathing is done with the chest and rib cage doing the pumping. This kind of rapid chest-breathing is called hyperventilation. It causes a faster heartbeat and a strong adrenaline rush. In addition, there is a depletion of carbon dioxide in the blood, thus triggering the fight-or-flight response, even more rapid heartbeat, and the manufacture of more sugar and adrenaline. Since the individual is sitting in the boardroom or auditorium, and cannot respond to this fight-or-flight signal, he or she begins to feel trapped and helpless, and experiences dread.

The correct way to breathe is to carefully pull in the abdomen, keeping the chest as still as possible. At the same time, exhale through the nose. In this position the stomach remains flat. The next step is to relax the abdomen. Notice how the air rushes into the nostrils and the stomach fills up like a little balloon. In the beginning, this exercise should be done as precisely as possible so that you learn to isolate the upper part of the body from the abdominal area. After each breath there should be a count of one, two, three, etc., counting up to 100 or 200 breaths until your name is called to go up to the podium. Don't get discouraged--this takes practice.

It is curious that people work more
on the form of their golf and tennis swing
than on their presentation style.

As a matter of fact, the old trick of blowing into a paper bag when you have a panic attack really works, because in this way you breathe back the carbon dioxide you expelled when you were hyperventilating. This restores the acid/alkaline balance (pH) of the blood. As a result, the effect of the flight-or-fight response is reduced. Breathing correctly can have an instantaneous and dramatic effect on the comfort level of the speaker. Training in the proper techniques should be the foundation of any public speaking, whether it be a formal presentation, a TV interview, or testifying in court.

Body Control Through Inner Awareness

"I'm a complete wreck. I guess everybody would keel over if they knew, so I just take a Valium or have a drink. I've been doing this for the past twenty years."
Cynthia, director of personnel--large corporation

Even with the most experienced speakers, we see out-of-control behavior, due to presentation training that neglects the body. The first five minutes of the presentation often are accompanied by too-rapid speech, nervous pacing, jerks and ticks that eventually diminish as the speaker becomes more familiar with his position in front of the audience. Notice that I did not say "comfortable." I think that 90 percent of our experienced speakers are not really comfortable speaking in public. This is because traditional public-speaking training focuses on the content - with so-called presentation strategies, advice, charts, visuals, etc., all in a desperate attempt to compel the speaker to jam as much information as possible into a small time frame. The importance of the physical comfort of the speaker is not adequately addressed.

No one completely escapes from the ravages of anticipatory anxiety and discomfort before giving an important presentation. Just last week at a monthly luncheon held by a large professional organization, I was sitting next to the man who was to be the main speaker. He hyperventilated, with discernible chest-breathing and jerky neck twists. After he heard himself announced, he jumped to his feet, ran to the podium, and began speaking even before he reached it. This experienced speaker immediately had the lights dimmed and proceeded to read from a script as he showed slides to keep the audience awake and involved.

Even though you may not identify with those who suffer an extreme form of public-speaking anxiety, training to master the basic techniques I have described will enhance your presentation.

Conversational Skills Are Not Presentation Skills

There is a huge difference between having a conversation and speaking in public. The untrained speaker who relies on the audience for feedback and approval--as one does in a conversation--is bound to go into a state of shock when the cues he receives from the audience are totally unfamiliar. In a performance situation, the speaker should rely on a sense of "groundedness," pulling the audience toward him or her through concentration and clarity. In the very beginning of a presentation, trying to reach across to the audience--as one does in a conversation--will unbalance the speaker and cause a feeling of disconnection from self and then from the audience. Traditional training does not give the phobic speaker guidelines to overcome this handicap and develop into an effective speaker.

Presenting a Point of View: A Mark of Leadership

I recently heard a well-known and knowledgeable man speak about the new proposed legislation for the President's health-care package. As he spoke, giving more and more information about the health plan, it became evident that he was not going to reveal his position on the subject. As a result, we in the audience could not focus on a point of view that would help us to organize all of this information. The audience became restless, shuffling and coughing--a sure sign of a massive tuneout. On and on continued the speaker. He had lost his audience. Moreover, he had never established his identity as a leader. An expert, yes; a leader, not at all. Experts collect information and make recommendations, but are usually faceless and nameless; they are the people behind the leader. If this presenter had included his own point of view and supported it with data, our perception of him would have been very different. There would have been a direction to this presentation. If he had said with conviction, "I think" or "I believe," it could have infused his talk with vitality and purpose.

The neck-up plotting and planning will have to be replaced with a more body-oriented, performance-oriented system of instruction,
which includes charm and personality
in the repertoire of skills.


Executives Are Not Exempt

It is curious that people work more on the form of their golf and tennis swing than on their presentation style. Executives seem to believe that if they have once taken a course in public speaking in college or at a corporate training, they are ready to appear in a public forum.

Great singers at the Met work with coaches. Olympic athletes work with trainers. Actors and actresses polish and perfect their performances. Yet executives apparently think they are exempt from training for public appearances, feeling qualified to stand in front of the most sophisticated audiences with "um" and "ah" after every fourth word.

Executives wear thousand-dollar suits and thousand-dollar watches; they drive hundred-thousand-dollar cars for a million-dollar impression. Yet when they open their mouths, if they dare to, the volume of carefully researched information pours out as if the floodgates of Niagara had opened up. They speak with little warmth. Piles of facts and statistics come careening down upon our ears with nary an anecdote nor a personal remark. There is clearing of the throat, nervous pacing, and breakneck speed of speech. This is the result of the type of cerebral training, with no attention to the body, that these executives have received.

The old paradigms do not work. The neck-up plotting and planning will have to be replaced with a more body-oriented, performance-oriented system of instruction, which includes charm and personality in the repertoire of skills. Then perhaps speakers can stop talking in the dark as they lean on a podium for dear life--the way my grandmother leans on her walker--to hide their discomfort as they lamely try to get their message across.

Natalie H. Rogers, M.S.W., is a behavioral psychotherapist, president of Talk-Power, Inc., in New York City, and author of Talk-Power: How to Speak Without Fear.