Where does the fear of public speaking stem?


One of the workshops I run is called Phenomenal Woman.  The subtitle is – helping you to step up and into the spotlight. I am mindful that while some people want to step into the spotlight and have decided that they are ready to do so, others are holding back and have a fear of public speaking.  The very thought of stepping up, let alone stepping into a spotlight, is enough to give them the cold sweats. So, why is this?
Here are a few of the most common reasons I hear:

Fear of failure

One of the biggest reasons why people don’t step up into the spotlight and there is a fear of public speaking is because they are afraid of failure. They may worry that they will not be good enough, that they will be judged negatively, or that they will let people down. I sometimes refer to this as being afraid of messing up.  Speaking in public is, after all, exposing ourselves (in the politest sense of the word), so any mess up (content, delivery, message or perspective) gets seen by a group of people, and it can feel like a massive deal.

So, how do you stop yourself from failing?  Well, the short answer is you don’t.  The real world we live in is full of failure. If we don’t experience failure, then we are probably doing nothing. You’ll be familiar with the phrase, there is no such thing as failure, only lessons learned.   This is true in my experience, although that doesn’t always make the experience a pleasant one at the time.  It is also true, in my experience, that the only way we get better at speaking in public and experiencing fewer failures is to do more of it and learn from any failures.  Failure is the root of growth.

Imposter syndrome

I have an issue with impostor syndrome.  First, its name – syndrome.  This term makes this very common, human response sounds like a disease or a problem.  When we think of it in these terms, it is one short hop, skip and jump to think of it as something wrong with us.  Something we need to ‘fix’ within us.  Add to this the belief that imposter syndrome affects more women than men (really?); then we have an added layer of patriarchy where women have yet another thing to be fixed before they can be heard.

Imposter ‘syndrome’ is thought of as a common feeling of inadequacy despite evidence of success. People with imposter syndrome may feel like they are not qualified or deserving of their accomplishments and may worry that they will be exposed as a fraud.

If you look under the surface of this definition, most people will admit that when they are ‘exposed’ in a meeting or presentation or in a report, for example, they worry. And they have a fear of public speaking. That is a very human reaction.  It is understandable and simply reminds us that we are stepping out of our comfort zone. The way we grow and learn and extend our influence.  It is quite natural to have some uncertain feelings, to ask, to question.  It doesn’t mean we have to be fixed, though.  Recognising that we have stepped out of our comfort zone into our stretch zone (the place where we grow despite uncertainty) can be significant and is often a pivotal moment. Uncomfortable, maybe, but getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is a powerful way of learning and growing.

Fear of rejection leading to a fear of public speaking

Fear of rejection leading to a fear of public speaking
People are sometimes hesitant to step up into the spotlight because they are afraid of rejection. They worry that people will not accept them for who they are or that they will be criticized or ridiculed. I think one of the greatest insights I gained into public speaking was when I realised that not everyone had to agree with me!  Naturally, I wanted to structure, sequence and deliver compelling and persuasive talks and ultimately achieve an outcome.  I did and do my best using my experience, talent, skills and hard graft to craft talks that do exactly that. At the end of the day, though, you can’t always please all the people.  There will be people in your audience who are ready to hear what you have to say, people who are not ready yet, and people who hold different views.  And that is OK.  Honestly.


Perfectionism is the desire to be perfect in everything you do. If I had hot dinners every time someone said to me that the timing had to be perfect, the slides must be perfect, and the delivery has to be perfect before they stand up in the spotlight, I’d be the size of a house. I remember a mentor saying to me that done is better than perfect.  You can’t influence or have an impact on anyone if you don’t actually get out there and speak. Besides this, It is my belief that audiences don’t want to see perfect, they want to see human.  A human that has respect for them and their content and has worked to craft content and deliver it in a way that is engaging and relevant – but is human at the same time and proud to be so.

Lack of confidence

Confidence is a funny old thing. You can’t go to the supermarket and buy confidence and stick it in your trolley, can you? Sometimes, we are more confident than at other times. Sometimes, we can feel a surge of confidence, and at other times, it can seem to drain away.  It is a slippery old thing.   Many times, I speak to my clients about feeling resourceful rather than confident.  If you feel less than resourceful, then where can get more resources?  Most times, for speaking, the resource is breath.  A pause.  A reset. A calmness.  Sometimes it can be more physical, like prompt notes, practice time, and feedback.

In addition to these general reasons, there may be other specific reasons why someone might be hesitant to step up into the spotlight. For example, if they have had a negative experience in the past, such as being publicly humiliated or criticised.  Tackling and challenging that experience is important and, for some of my clients, is an important piece of internal work for them.

Overcoming a fear of public speaking

Once we understand our fears and hesitations, we can start to work on overcoming them. Here are a few tips:

  • Challenge your negative thoughts. When you have a negative thought about stepping up into the spotlight, challenge it. Ask yourself if there is any evidence to support your thought. If there is no evidence or weak evidence, then let go of the thought.
  • Focus on your strengths. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. When you are hesitant to step into the spotlight, focus on your strengths. Remind yourself of what you are good at and what you have to offer.
  • Visualize success. Take some time to visualize yourself successfully stepping up into the spotlight. Imagine yourself feeling confident and comfortable. This will help to program your mind for success.
  • Start small. If you feel overwhelmed by the thought of stepping into the spotlight, start small. Volunteer to give a presentation at work or in your community. Once you have successfully given a few small presentations, you can start to take on bigger challenges.
  • Find a mentor. A mentor can be a valuable resource for anyone who is trying to step up into the spotlight. A mentor can provide you with support, guidance, and encouragement.

If you find yourself fearful of stepping up and into the spotlight, ask yourself, if not me, who? If not now, when? This is your opportunity to have an impact, to make a difference.

If you have any questions about overcoming a fear of public speaking, please get in touch. You can also find out more about my one to one coaching here.