Most of us have heard about a study that claims public speaking is our number one fear. Jerry Seinfeld even made a joke out of it, noting that if fear of public speaking was number one, and death was lower down the list, it meant that people would rather die than give the eulogy at the funeral.

Now comes a study – surveying Americans – to check up on those fears. Is public speaking still number one?

The answers may surprise you a little. We public speakers can no longer proudly (or cravenly) point to public speaking as fear #1. Alas, it has dropped to number five.

Here’s the list:

1. Walking alone at night.
2. Becoming the victim of identity theft.
3. Safety on the internet.
4. Being the victim of a mass/random shooting.
5. Public speaking.

I find the list fascinating because two of the four greater fears – the ones that have displaced public speaking – are online-created fears. And I suspect that Fear #4 is largely a media-generated fear, since – and I know you’re going to find this hard to believe – the odds of you dying from a random shooting have actually gone down in the last 20 years, not up.

So that leaves walking alone at night and public speaking as fears that everyone will most likely have to confront at one time or another. You will eventually have to give a speech and you will probably have to walk alone from somewhere to somewhere else during your lifetime.

I can’t help much with the walking alone – except to urge you to travel in groups – but I can offer a few tips for dealing with the fear of public speaking.

Begin by re-defining the fear you’re feeling for what it is: adrenaline. You’re feeling trapped and your body is doing an ancient thing – letting you know that it’s time for fight or flight.

Then let the adrenaline be helpful to you. Adrenaline can throw you off or it can carry you through your talk.

How do you work that magic? Avoid the downside. Focus on the positive. Just as little unexpected problems encountered at the beginning of a presentation can throw you off your stride, three simple steps you can take before you start can help ensure that your speech gets off to a great start.

First, find someone to talk to – who will be in the audience. You can usually arrange to meet members of the audience before a speech, whether it’s at a cocktail party the night before or even in the few minutes before a presentation is due to start. As you’re making conversation, ask them what’s on their minds, and what their needs are.

Set up a question for the Q&A, if you’re allowing for that. Then, when you get up to speak, imagine you’re talking to that one individual. For many speakers, the result is to warm up the delivery and calm down the nerves. It’s easier to talk to one real person than a mass of unknowns. If the conversation was in depth and took place the night before, you might even be able to weave some of the audience’s comments and concerns into your talk.

Second, shake the hand of the person who introduces you. This simple little gesture will help ground you. It will help prevent some of the nervousness that we all feel at the beginning of a speech. It also presents a strong visual image of connection and trustworthiness to the audience, since the introducer is usually someone the audience knows. And it’s the polite thing to do, if you’ve been given a great introduction.

Third, take a deep breath before you speak, then swallow, then begin. The breath helps you build some resonance in your voice, keeping it from being squeaky or shaky.

To do it right, though, you must breathe from your diaphragm, what speech coaches often call “belly breathing.” Your stomach should inflate, and your shoulders should remain level. If you raise your shoulders when you breathe, you actually squeeze your lungs into a smaller space, constricting your voice. The swallow helps steady your voice. And the pause works well with the audience, to build a connection between you and it, and adds a little drama.

The first thirty seconds of any speech are key. You’ll either make a good impression on the audience, helping them relax and believe that they’re in store for an interesting time, or you will do the opposite. So play it smart. If you stride in with lots of energy, smile confidently, and take charge of the space and the audience immediately, you’ll be off to an excellent start. If you slump in, fidget your energy away, and talk only to the few people right in front of you, you’ll make the opposite impression. Of course, it’s easier to stride in confidently if the inner you is thriving and confident, so don’t neglect the important work on that.

In the end, the best way to start a speech – and to help you relax – is to get the audience involved from the very top. Get them to do something interesting. Then tell them your opening story and get to work. But if you get them going at the start, the energy you will unleash will amaze you.

The cliché in this situation is to ask for a show of hands, “Anyone from Poughkeepsie?” or some other such meaningless exchange. The better way is to engage them in something that relates to the topic. Get them to help you articulate the problem you’re going to discuss, or identify some of the issues that lie behind the problem.

Another way to involve the audience from the start is to report to them about them. Audiences are always interested in hearing about themselves. It flatters their vanity. So do your homework, and tell them something interesting (and complimentary) about them. What percentage of them are CEOs? Or involved in not-for-profit work? Or have attained advanced degrees? Make it relevant to your subject.

These ways of connecting to the audience will help you feel better quickly and will reduce your fear of speaking in real time. Fear of public speaking may be Fear #5 on the list, but that doesn’t mean you can’t minimize it.


  1. Nick, I’m a bit like you. Not as famous, I haven’t got your internet clout nor written wonderful books but my trade is fear and public speaking! I help people who are really scared take their place in the world. And I do it through public speaking.
    My analysis is that the place to start off is adrenaline AND threat. Of course they go hand in hand. We massively over-think and over-detect threat and that’s what gets us into trouble. Our evolutionary wonky brain acts as an over-sensitive threat detector.
    I think we really need to understand what audiences do when they listen. And the answer is not that much! Audiences often listen with passive, non-responsive, blank faces. In normal conversations we get approval signs (nodding head, smiles, body matching). However when we stand in front of an audience we don’t get any approval signs. So speakers can start to think any of the following: I’m boring, the audience are judging me, they know I’m a fraud, they know more than I do, they can see I’m really nervous. So no wonder they feel under threat, no wonder they find it difficult to look at that audience full of judgment. But they are misunderstanding their brain. The anxious brain distorts our world view. We don’t really see with our eyes – we see with our brain and it’s full of quick judgements about what people think about us. All those judgements tend to be negative and there isn’t usually any proof of them.
    But if speakers know that blank faces are normal. And they have done some practice in front of a safe audience then we can learn to not be freaked out by blank faces.
    (It’s also worthwhile looking at audiences when you are not the speaker and see how you behave when you are in the audience.)
    One of the problems with the lack of approval in the audience is paradoxically the “rescuer”. The audience member who nods and smiles. You might think that’s a good thing but speakers are drawn to them like magnets and stick with them through the whole speech. Tiring for the audience member and a disservice to the rest of the audience. Your job as a speaker is to serve your whole audience.
    So please do everything that Nick tells you AND get used to your audience not showing you any approval signs until the applause. Love those blank faces!

  2. All excellent tips! I would add to this a perspective that speakers can consider. One reason for nervousness is speakers feeling that they are the most important people in the room, that what matters most is how they come off, how they are viewed when the speech or talk is over. That drives all kinds of self-directed concern, which drives up adrenaline and anxiety.

    If we stop to think about our audience and make them the most important people–focus on them, elevate their importance–that helps take the hyper-focus off of ourselves and put aside some of the obsession with one’s own performance. The time to plan for and worry about the performance is in rehearsal. The time to love the audience is during the speech.

    1. Susan, great point! The speech — as given — always should be about the audience, not the speaker. I love the way you put it: “The time to plan for and worry about the performance is in rehearsal. The time to love the audience is during the speech.” Perfect!

  3. Nick:

    Excellent advice as usual. However, I wish you’d left off that list of five most common fears from last October’s press release for the Chapman Survey on American Fears. It isn’t quite legitimate because it combines results for differently formed questions. Three items (#2, #4, #5) are answers for “Very Afraid” to “How afraid are you?”, and the other two (#1 and #3) are answers for “Not safe at all” to “How safe do you feel?” That’s like comparing bananas and blueberries. I blogged about it here:

    Also, if you look at the dozen items in their section titled Phobias, you will find that public speaking is ranked first there. The Washington Post had one Halloween bar chart for some results:
    and I had several:

    Gallup poll results from 2001 (and 1998) had public speaking second to snakes:

    Back in July 2012 I blogged about how public speaking ranked first in just five of fifteen surveys:

    Then for Halloween I discussed how Either way you look at it, public speaking really is not our greatest fear:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.