The Fear Factor

(Based on reader input and comments from my executive coaching clients, sounds like it’s time to re-visit this important topic.)

How many of you really dread speaking in public? Don’t be ashamed to admit it – most people do. Or, at the very least, they don’t like doing it.

Speaking in public is always high on the list of things people fear the most, usually above snakes and spiders, often above death itself. That means the next time you attend a funeral, the person delivering the eulogy from the pulpit would rather be in the casket. Go figure.

Presentation Anxiety (PA) – the clinical term – is a perfectly normal human response. So don’t feel too bad – you have plenty of company. But, don’t think you have to overcome it and really become more confident and comfortable when presenting. Just appear to be that way. With the audience, perception is reality.

The outcome of this two-part article will be to share concepts, strategies and techniques to help you minimize the real causes of your PA and its symptoms and mask what’s left. So, let’s start by discussing why people experience PA in the first place.

Fight or Flight

Presentation Anxiety. It isn’t a singular feeling, but a set of feelings that vary by individual and situation. A fundamental human response to stress is the ‘fight or flight’ tendency we inherited from our primitive ancestors. When they faced a hungry animal or enemy, their adrenal glands kicked into overdrive to provide extra doses of energy to either fight or flee.

Since speaking in front of people causes stress for most people, the same thing happens. But, we usually can’t run away or beat up the audience.  Unfortunately, our adrenal glands don’t know the difference and we still get overdosed on power juice. That causes some physiological and psychological symptoms that we project to the audience.

Ask 100 people to carefully analyze why they don’t like speaking in public and you’ll get a lot of different answers. For the sake of our discussion, let’s group the reasons for PA into three broad categories.

Fear of Failure

Many people stress out over delivering a presentation because of fear of failure or, at least, not doing very well. This feeling may be driven by concern over forgetting content or making mistakes. Presenters who are heavily dependent on PowerPoint usually stress out over what to do if the software crashes or the project dies. We’ve all been the victims of Murphy’s Law.

Any of these drivers can increase the level of PA as the importance of the presentation or the ‘cost of failure’ increase. That big-ticket sales pitch or important presentation for the big bosses can really make presenters crazy.

Fear of Looking Dumb

Some presenters agonize over looking dumb to the audience because they don’t really know their content or aren’t experts. They don’t feel prepared or didn’t take – or have – the time to get there. Others worry about making a bad or weak impression on the audience, but don’t know how to avoid it.

This fear is heightened during the audience question section, especially if the topic is controversial or the audience has some argumentative or aggressive members. No one likes to look dumb in front of the big dogs, especially those inflicted with an unreasonably high level of self-defeating perfectionism.

Fear of the Spotlight

Many introverted people don’t enjoy communicating in general and especially being in the spotlight on the platform. Being out of their comfort zone really stresses them out. And on top of these often paralyzing fears, many people don’t like how they look – a typical human condition. They think they’re too short or too tall, too thin or too heavy, too young or too old, too much hair or not enough. Putting them on the platform only intensifies this low physical self-esteem, especially in a large audience setting with image magnification on large screens. Now that’s really creepy.


So, what do you do about all these Presentation Anxiety drivers? First, read the above list again and rate each item 1 – 10 for yourself: 1 = causes you a very low level of PA, 10 = causes an extremely high level. Be introspective and very honest with yourself – no one else will know. As a result, you’ll have a more accurate, specific and objective sense of why you dislike speaking.

Then, you’ll have a better sense of why you – and everyone else – may experience Presentation Anxiety. Let’s hope this discussion helped take some of the fear out of dealing with the fear.

Next month, we’ll focus on managing PA. You can’t get rid of it and shouldn’t even try, but you can manage the process better and reduce your symptoms and impact.