Fear of Public Speaking Hardwired

Speech Anxiety Worse for Some, but Most Can Overcome It

Medically Reviewed by Amal Chakraburtty, MD on March 01, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

April 20, 2006 -- Fear of public speaking strikes some people harder -- and differently -- than others, according to a new study.

The study shows that those who suffer most over speaking in public get more anxious -- not less anxious -- as their presentation gets under way. And when it's over, instead of feeling relief, they feel even more anxious.

If speaking in public scares you, you aren't alone, says Paul L. Witt, PhD, assistant professor of communication studies at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth.

"It is even scarier than rattlesnakes," Witt tells WebMD. "The idea of making a presentation in public is the No. 1 fear reported by people in the U.S."

And it's not just making a speech. Anxiety strikes any time we present our ideas in front of other people.

"Anytime people make verbal remarks that need to be clear and persuasive, we find widespread reports of stage fright and nervousness," Witt says.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Getting a little keyed up may help us focus and pay better attention. It happens to almost everybody who gets ready to make a presentation, Witt and colleagues find.

Sensitizers vs. Habituaters

Witt and colleagues studied 48 male and 48 female college students enrolled in a beginning public speaking class. The speakers underwent a battery of psychological tests before and after making a five-minute assigned presentation. The tests included a self-report inventory of gastrointestinal symptoms.

To nobody's surprise, people who are anxious by nature -- what psychologists call high-trait anxiety -- had the most symptoms when speaking in public.

What was surprising was the anxiety pattern. People with low-trait anxiety get nervous before speaking but begin to relax once they get started. People with high-trait anxiety, however, are anxious when they start speaking and get more anxious as they go on.

"We hear this comment a lot from speakers: 'I was so nervous when I started but by the time I finished it wasn't so bad. I even wished I had more time,'" Witt says. "What happens is we have habituated -- we have gotten used to the context of public speaking."

Habituaters are usually low-trait anxiety people. People with high-trait anxiety, Witt says, tend to be "sensitizers."

"Sensitizers are those who really focus on the unpleasant indicators: 'Oh my gosh, I have to make this speech. Oh my Lord, my hands are trembling.' And they focus on these things instead of taking a deep breath or becoming more focused. They are really into the experience but react in negative ways, whereas habituaters are really into the experience and react in a more accommodating way."

Even when their speech is over, sensitizers don't relax. In fact, they become even more anxious.

Witt's study appears in the March issue of Southern Communication Journal.

You Can Speak in Public

Here's the bad news. You cannot change your traits. They are part of your personality. If you are a person with high-trait anxiety, there's no simple way to become a low-trait-anxiety person.

The good news is that we can learn to win with the cards we are dealt. High-trait anxiety is a challenge. It need not be a disability.

Witt doesn't try to motivate people. Instead, he teaches public speaking skills.

Before speaking:

  • Visualize. Picture yourself in the classroom or in the meeting room, standing up, taking your notes to the lectern, and so on. Visualize a successful outcome.
  • Practice. Practice going through your presentation, over and over again. But do it with someone who is supportive, so that you learn to succeed rather than to fail.
  • Sensitizers focus on the little things. "Through visualization they can get all that negative stuff out, so when the real day comes, they can get that out of their system and focus on real issues," Witt says.

During your speech, deal with symptoms as they occur:

  • Dry mouth? Take a little sip of water.
  • Knees knocking? Shift your weight and flex your knees.
  • Hands trembling? Put them together.
  • Voice is quivering? "Pause, take a deep breath or two, and smile. It is amazing what a smile will do," Witt say.
  • Sweating? "Forget it, nobody sees that anyway," Witt says.

"Those symptoms that distract us are treatable," Witt says. "It doesn't take a PhD to figure this out, but so many people don't -- because as sensitizers, they become so focused on their symptoms and their embarrassment in front of other people."

There are, of course, psychological problems that require more than visualization and practice. Witt recommends counseling for people who have violent symptoms such as vomiting. But for the rest of us -- who fear that everyone in the room can see our palms sweat -- it's a matter of gaining confidence by learning a set of simple skills.

"Virtually every speaker gets nervous most of the time, or at least some of the time," Witt says. "We all deal with our nervousness in different ways. The important thing is it does not have to make us embarrassed or frightened or upset to speak in front of other people. We can deal with that. You may be nervous, but you don't have to be disabled in front of other people."

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SOURCES: Witt, P.L. Southern Communication Journal, March 2006; vol 71: pp 87-100. Paul L. Witt, PhD, assistant professor of communication studies, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth.

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