Fear public speaking more than death? Fear not – the audience only sees 20% of your nerves

Fear public speaking more than death? Fear not – the audience only sees 20% of your nerves


Have you heard the stat – according to an American study 75% of people fear public speaking more than they fear death?!  Whilst this data point may not be entirely conclusive, it’s well recognised that public speaking – whether it’s standing up in front of hundreds of people at a conference, speaking at your department meeting of 50, or sharing a presentation with your boss – fills most people with horror and is something many people actively avoid doing.

As Mark Twain said ‘There are two types of speakers: – those that are nervous, and those that are liars.”

But why is this?  Why do we find it so scary?  What is it that leads us to think we would rather die than open our mouths and speak in front of an audience?

For many of us, it’s a fear of pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone, and the feelings that accompany that fear.  We know that we are going to feel nervous, anxious – even scared – and this is an uncomfortable feeling that we don’t enjoy or want to invite in.

This fear – and associated nerves – is often rooted in the fact that we can have little confidence in ourselves as a public speaker.  We tell ourselves that we don’t know the topic, that we can’t keep the audience engaged, that we are not very entertaining.  More often than not this isn’t true, but in our moments of panic, our mind is very happy to believe it.

The flip side of this is a fear of the audience – the perception that they are a pack of wolves out to get us and trip us up.   Despite weeks of preparation and practice we can still go into a presentation worrying that the audience are trying to catch us out – that they want to expose a lack of in-depth knowledge about the presentation topic, that they want to bombard us with difficult and challenging questions, that they are out to prove a point and prove us wrong.  This can be particularly draining when we are new in our role or presenting to a group of people who we imagine to be significantly more senior or knowledgeable than us.

These fears can then be further compounded by the knowledge that all eyes are going to be on us a speaker – being in the spotlight is something many of us shy away from – combined with the worry that we are going, in some way, to make a fool of ourselves.

“What if my mind goes blank and I can’t remember what to say?”

“What if I go bright red and start sweating?”

“What if everyone can see my hands shaking as I hold my notes?”

Is it any wonder that people fear public speaking more than death?!

The good news is that actually, all of this is entirely natural – and obviously very common.  Most of the time the reality of the situation isn’t anywhere near as bad as your imagination would have you believe, and there are plenty of strategies that you can use to help you effectively manage the situation.

Next time you have a speech or presentation coming up and you feel nervous, remind yourself that this is totally normal and is your body’s way of trying to look after you.  Way way back, when we lived in constant danger from predators, our bodies developed the ‘fight or flight’ response to help us escape adversity when it came prowling.   Whilst we are not in mortal danger every time we are faced with public speaking, we can still perceive ourselves as under threat which is why we feel ‘on edge’ and are poised to fight or fly.  Acknowledging this, knowing that the feelings will pass, and reassuring ourselves that we are not actually in danger can help manage those feelings of nerves.

It’s also highly unlikely that the audience are out to get you.  They’ve chosen to come and listen to you, and are looking forward to the value that you are going to add.   Design your speech with the audience in mind, treat them as you would a group of friends and be confident that you are adding value and they are gaining something from what you have to say.

Most reassuring of all is the fact that whilst we might think the entire audience are doing nothing but notice how we are shaking, stammering, going bright red, they actually only see about 20% of what you’re feeling in your body.  We are there in the moment, occupying our bodies and feeling every last shudder, but the audience only notice a fraction of this.  Be mindful of this, and try not to give undue focus to the trait that you are worried about happening.

If you’d like more information on how to become a more confident and impactful presenter, check out our corporate training and 1-to-1 coaching, all specifically designed to help develop you the right mindset to feel good about public speaking.

This article was written by Natalie Forkin, Fearless Coach.