A friend recently told me that public speaking is the number one human fear.
He was trying to reassure me, as I’d been feeling anxious about a presentation I had to give at a coaching workshop.
I was relieved, but skeptical at the same time. So I looked it up and it’s true: some research suggests that human beings fear public speaking more than we fear death.
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld said that what this means is that when you go to a funeral, you’d rather be in the coffin than doing the eulogy!
But perhaps our fear of public speaking (or stage fright) and fear of death are not as separate as we think they are.
Millions of years ago, human beings lived in a world filled with threats, such as large predators and starvation. A way of defending ourselves was to live in groups so that we could alert and protect one another. Our ancestors relied on the group for survival—therefore, rejection by the group was a death threat.
Even today, we rely on human cooperation for our survival and we remain social creatures who measure our success and status by comparing ourselves to others.
For my coaching workshop, I chose fear of public speaking as my topic, and asked the group the following questions:
Why do we fear public speaking so much?
What is the root of the fear?
And what can we do to overcome (or minimise) it?
What came up was a fear of rejection, failure, shame, and isolation; and the participants agreed that practice is the best, if not the only, way to conquer the fear.
I also asked the following question: As coaches, how can we help clients who come to us with fear of public speaking?
Some of the participants replied that they wouldn’t coach such clients because they viewed this as therapy rather than coaching territory. I want to challenge that boundary.
How do we convert fear into courage? Vulnerability into strength?
Setting an intention is a great place to start. Following a helpful mentoring session before my workshop, I decided to set the following intentions:
1. Connect authentically with the group.
2. Make the presentation as valuable as possible.
3. Try to make it an enjoyable experience for everyone, including myself, by keeping it dynamic and injecting some humor whenever possible.
I also gave myself permission to do three things:
1. Rather than fighting it, I allowed myself to feel nervous.
2. I allowed myself to make mistakes—perfectionism can be our worst enemy.
3. I allowed myself to be seen—to be vulnerable—by sharing with the group the root of my own fear, which stems from childhood bullying.
I’ve also learned that how we use our body during a talk can have a massive impact on the quality of the delivery of our message, and its subsequent reception. Moving around and even gesticulating freely, as opposed to being stationary or rigid, allows our nervous energy to flow, preventing it from paralysing us.
Rather than avoiding eye contact, we can use it to help us connect and engage with the audience.
When speaking in public, fear can trigger various coping mechanisms; one of these is feigning confidence, which can result in apparent overconfidence and arrogance. This can alienate listeners and in turn increase our fear of isolation or rejection. Instead, we need to embrace our vulnerability.
Overcoming our fear of speaking in public should not be seen as the finish line, but as part of a wider learning process. Making mistakes is not just normal—it is necessary. There is no learning without failure. Once we truly accept this, we can move on from any mistake we make without magnifying it in our head.
And let’s remember that there’s no courage without fear, only recklessness. Being brave and being scared—being strong and being vulnerable—are two sides of the same coin.
Author: Nico de Napoli
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Danielle Beutell
Social Editor: Emily Bartran