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Is Public Speaking Our Number One Fear?

There's a widely held belief that people are more afraid of public speaking than of dying... Shocking, right!?

I'm pretty sure this idea was popularized by Jerry Seinfeld's joke (also stated on his sitcom, a favorite of mine) that goes something like this, “A recent study showed that people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two! This means, to the average person, if you're at a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

I've come across this 'fact' in textbooks, articles, and countless conversations. It sure makes public speaking sound more dramatic and daring. It's funny, it's clever...but it happens to be factually incorrect. Allow me to explain!

This 'fact' is based on a survey from the seventies that asked people to state whether they were afraid of a series of items. More individuals happened to say they were afraid of public speaking than they said they were afraid of death. Nobody was asked if they feared public speaking more than death. This was a single, decades old study that has been contradicted by many other surveys. Let's explore a more recent one.

Chapman University surveyed Americans on common fears in 2018. People were asked to state whether they were "afraid" or "very afraid" based on a wide range of topics. So where did public speaking rank?

Public speaking is in 59th place - below death (oddly enough, death is only 54th on the list of fears). 26.2% of people reported being afraid or very afraid of public speaking. So about one out of four people are scared of public speaking. 

That's not insignificant, but it certainly can't be said that public speaking is our number one fear. I was a little disappointed to see this fact debunked because it makes my job as a speech teacher seem a little less exciting. But the truth may be a little more interesting... We have many fears and public speaking is just one of them. 

It's my view that if we can overcome the fear of public speaking, it puts us on a trajectory to overcome everything else in life that scares us. Perhaps we can think of public speaking as a testing ground for overcoming fear. I certainly feel that way after practicing public speaking for 10+ years. Addressing an audience is extremely nerve-wracking - and I've gotten quite used to that. So other things have become a lot more manageable.

At the end of the day, public speaking may not be as dreadful as the thought of dying. But if you happen to be afraid of public speaking, you can work on facing this fear, and then other things may not be as scary. And heaven forbid, if you ever find yourself giving a eulogy, at least you won't be wishing you were in the casket.  

See more on this topic:

Chapman University: America's Top Fears 2018

Karan Kangas Dwyer and Marlina M. Davidson: Is Public Speaking Really More Feared Than Death?