Why Does Pretty Much Everyone Have A Fear Of Public Speaking?

How common is the fear of public speaking? So common that comedian Jerry Seinfeld wrote a joke about the fact it is more feared than death – as well as spiders and heights. The official name for fear of public speaking in extreme cases is glossophobia, which is a combination of the Greek words for "tongue or language" and "fear."

Glossophobia sufferers may freeze up in front of their audience and can experience sweating, dry mouth, a weak voice, and trembling. But having an "audience" doesn't only refer to being in front of a large group. Public speaking can also include dates, job interviews, and getting called on in class.

It is not known exactly how many people have glossophobia, but it is estimated that about 75% of the population has experienced some form of public speaking fear. Many people are able to work through their fear and carry on with the task at hand. Some people do not experience any fear at all. So what causes glossophobia, and why are people scared of public speaking? 

  • They've Had A Traumatic Past Speaking Experience

    If you've ever been embarrassed in front of a large group of people, you may not have only wanted to disappear from the situation as it was happening, but you may also want to refrain from even thinking about the experience again, let alone getting back up in front of a crowd. Any past traumas or unhappy incidents you've been through in front of a group that made you feel shame, rejection, or scolding can influence your desire to speak in front of others long after the fact. This kind of past-public-speaking trauma is actually seen as the main force behind glossophobia. And, if that's not bad enough, fears can build over time, so, even if the embarrassing incident was something small, it can become magnified in hindsight, making the fear even greater with the passage of time. 

  • They Inherited It Genetically

    It's possible that some of us were just born that way. In fact, glossophobia is most commonly found in people with family histories of public speaking fears. Since we inherit many of the personality traits of our predecessors, we can inherit glossophobia too. Thanks mom and dad!

  • They Have General Anxiety And Shyness Even Outside Of Public Speaking

    Although it's impossible to gauge the exact number of "shy" people in the population, as much as 40 to 60% of adults report considering themselves shy. Shyness is a consequence of social anxiety, and shy people can feel awkward, tense, or worried in a multitude of social situations. Socially anxious shy people may also have physical symptoms manifest when they're feeling particularly uncomfortable. Excessive blushing, digestive issues, or sweating can keep shy people from speaking in public.

  • They Fear Or Expect Failure

    Success is great, but there's always a chance you won't get there. Fear of failure can be a phobia in itself – atychiphobia – but it can also play a part in glossophobia if the fear of speaking outranks the hope to succeed. Expecting failure can also feed glossophobia by creating certainty in an unhappy outcome. Why would anyone want to go through the pain of speaking if it's just going to make things worse?

  • They Feel Like All The World's A Stage

    Feeling self-conscious can make a lot of situations feel like you're up on stage, and everyone's watching you – even if you're not up there yet or there actually is no stage! You can become acutely aware of your actions – hyper-focusing on and analyzing everything you do – and become embarrassed easily. If this happens before or during a public speech, glossophobia can become involved, creating an endless feedback loop of fear, failure, and anxiety.  

  • They Are Perfectionists

    Many of us may see perfectionism as a quality of a high-achieving person. In reality, however, striving to be perfect can also lead to depression and anxiety, as well as causing fears like glossophobia. If you're holding back from grabbing that microphone because you think something will go wrong or your execution might have some micro flaws (which is just life, by the way), your glossophobia may be caused by perfectionism.