Some people are more afraid of public speaking than death. It sounds irrational, and it is. Public speaking is the number one phobia in the country—greater than death, spiders and heights.
According to Andres Viana, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston and a board certified clinical psychologist, at the core of social anxieties, including public speaking, is the fear of negative evaluation.
“The person thinks people are going to judge them, so they try to avoid that situation. Fear of public speaking is highly correlated with social anxiety disorder—people who are very shy in social situations,” said Viana.
Phobias involve persistent fear and avoidance of the object or situation. An estimated 19.2 million people have a phobia, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Throughout history, those who have feared public speaking include some very influential people—Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Ghandi and Abraham Lincoln. Warren Buffett, the third-wealthiest man in the world, was able to overcome his fear of public speaking by facing it.
“You have to do it. And the sooner you do it, the better. If you have a fear of associating with people, you have to go out there and do it, and it’s painful,” Buffett said in an interview with career service company Levo.
Viana cites exposure as the most effective way to overcome a phobia. “Cognitive behavioral therapy involves exposing the person to their fear in a very gradual and systematic way. They learn that the terrible things they think are going to happen generally do not happen.”
If your fears are interfering with your job, family or normal function, experts recommend treatment from a mental health professional. But if you don’t have a phobia—you just don’t enjoy public speaking—it’s a skill that is worth improving.
“When your message is worthwhile, you care about your audience and believe your listeners will benefit from it, then your nerves diminish and you become an effective public speaker,” said Deborah Bridges, instructional professor and course coordinator for public speaking courses at UH. “Value yourself, your listeners and what you have to say. It makes for a dynamic speaker and a top-notch speech.”