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Public Speaking Anxiety Causes and Solutions

I find it remarkable how the fear of public speaking consistently ranks among the top fears that people have. This is fascinating to me as I deal with students’ fear of speaking regularly. Perhaps this gives me a pretty good vantage point on this issue. 

Of course, many people are totally comfortable with public speaking. There is a spectrum of public speaking anxiety with some people experiencing lots of it and some experiencing very little of it. But for those that experience intense anxiety or fear when it comes to public speaking, I’d like to explain the cause and cure of this malady from my perspective.

Fear of public speaking is really a fear of being evaluated negatively by other people. This is a completely natural and normal response to being in front of others, most of whom are likely to be complete strangers. We want to be accepted by the group and we don’t want other people to think we’re dumb, ugly, different etc. From an evolutionary perspective, exclusion from the tribe means probable danger, or even death. I believe this is what’s behind the fear of public speaking. So if the cause of public speaking anxiety is a fear of being judged by others, then a cure can be deduced.

The primary way to get over this fear involves letting go of our need for approval. The solution may be simple but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. How do we absolve ourselves from an innate desire for the acceptance of others? I don’t think it’s entirely possible to remove a fundamental human emotion from our experience. But an important first step is to gain a better understanding of the root of this fear.

Of course there are practical tips that I’ve previously discussed such as getting experience, rehearsing and using relaxation exercises. The common effect of these activities is that they work towards reducing our concerns about being rejected by a crowd. You can either put your efforts towards improving your performance, or in decreasing your expectations. Ideally, it would be great to do your best to impress. But at a certain point, this becomes impractical. For especially anxious individuals, it becomes necessary to belie the instinctual belief that survival depends on audience approval.

This may seem like basic stuff for some people that are already confident and comfortable when it comes to speaking in public. But a strong fear persists for many folks. I’ve come to find that this originates from our human need for approval. It may have been true thousands of years ago that rejection from one’s group meant certain death. However, I presume that such danger is largely absent from most contemporary public speaking engagements.

By understanding the cause of this fear, we can gain a better perspective on its cure. When it comes to speaking anxiety we must certainly learn to improve our abilities. But to fully overcome the anxiety it is necessary to diminish our need for universal approval. At the end of the day, you can only do your best and try to forget about the rest. The last part becomes an important tool for stress reduction!