The Big Myth: Public Speaking Might Not Be
So Scary After All
by Melissa Lewis
When misinformation gets quoted often enough, we start to accept it as fact. For example, we hear, "According to The Book of Lists, public speaking is the #1 fear, rated higher than heights, snakes, even death." Everyone just accepts this idea, including stand-up comics like Jerry Seinfeld who quips, "People are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death. That means if you’re at a funeral, you’d rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy." BOOM-cha! This "#1 Fear" thing can set up a joke or cocktail party chit-chat, but it’s time to let this old cliché go. Here are three reasos why:
#1: There’s no solid data to back up the claim.
The source quoted in The Book of Lists leads back to a tiny blurb in The Sunday Times of London from October 7, 1973. It refers to "American market researchers," but nowhere does it say who these researchers were, what they were marketing, where the results were published, how the information was gathered, who the respondents were, what sampling methods were used—nothing! Even if details had been included, it’s still 30-year-old research. Haven’t we changed as a society in the last 30 years? I think so! Plus, think of all the fears today that weren’t even part of our consciousness 1973: Terrorism, AIDS, SARS, identity theft, email spam. If this research were conducted with rigor today, the results would be extremely different.
#2: "Most common" does not equal "biggest."
When you ask people what they’re afraid of and then tally up what percentage of people mentioned what, you get a list of the most COMMON fears, not the BIGGEST fears. For example, I have no fear of drowning in a giant vat of Grey Poupon mustard. Why? Because I have no chance of ever being near a giant vat of Grey Poupon mustard, so it just wouldn’t occur to me. Jacques, on the night shift at the Grey Poupon factory, might name that as his #1 fear. Now, what would make my list is a fear of spiders, largely because one recently crawled out of my briefcase. All things considered, I’d rather contend with a tiny spider than drown in mustard, but the spider would still be #1 on my list because it’s fresh in my mind. Still believe that people fear speaking more than death? Consider this: If someone held a gun to your head and said, "Give a speech or I’ll shoot," I guarantee you’d give the speech.
#3: This cliché is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Imagine a young, exuberant, wonderfully expressive young girl hearing this tidbit for the first time. She thinks to herself, "Public speaking is the #1 fear? I didn’t know that. I’ve never been afraid to speak but if everyone else is, maybe they know something I don’t. Maybe I should be afraid. I think I am!" And a fear is born. In fact, with people thinking they’re supposed to be scared, maybe it’s not socially acceptable to admit to actually enjoying public speaking!
"Public speaking is the #1 fear" is a catchy, shocking factoid that the media (and those selling public speaking courses) love to quote. But this tired old reference is irrelevant and most likely not even true. Public speaking can be a fun and exciting vehicle for expressing yourself and helping others. Don’t let this worn-out, unfounded myth hold you back.