Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Myths about fear and the Book of Lists

I forgot to mention yesterday that the blog post by Garth Reynolds which I discussed had a nice endorsement for Toastmasters International.

That post also provoked a comment by Robert Fineberg that:

“The greatest public speaking myth is that it’s the number one fear. It was started by a man named Wallenchesky in the early 70′s in his flawed “The Book of Lists”. Jerry Seinfeld in a stand-up routine joked that it’s higher number than the fear of death; therefore, we’d rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.

The latest Gallup surveys say that 60% of those surveyed are afraid to speak — 20% would do it if they had to — and 20% are okay with presenting.

Hardly the number one fear.”

Mr. Fineberg managed to start five new myths in the first paragraph of his comment. That's enough to frighten a unicorn!

1. The Book of Lists really was compiled by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace. Who the heck is Wallenchesky? That name does not even show up as a book author either in the Library of Congress catalog or in WorldCat.

2. The Book of Lists was published by Morrow in 1977, which was the late 70’s, not the early 70’s.

3. The “myth” that public speaking is the number one fear did not start from the Book of Lists. That result came from a survey done in April 1973 by Richard H. Bruskin and Associates. I have discussed the survey at length in a blog post just before last Halloween.

4. The Bruskin survey was cited in Rudolph F. Verderber’s 1976 textbook The Challenge of Public Speaking even before the Book of Lists was published. Since then Bruskin’s survey has been cited in many other public speaking textbooks. They spread this “myth,” not just the Book of Lists. Should we shoot all the messengers?

5. In 1993 Bruskin’s later organization (Bruskin-Goldring) did another fears survey and they again found public speaking to be the top fear. Is it a myth if you can replicate it?

I looked around on the Gallup web site, but can’t find what Fineberg claims that the latest Gallup surveys say. Their 2001 fears survey had public speaking coming in second, after snakes.

Quoting the #1 fear from the Book of Lists is irritatingly common. I suspect many who open with this startling statistic are unaware of how ancient the book and that first survey are. It showed up a in a 2007 press release here, and again this month here. Last year Professor Tania S. Smith blogged about how it had clearly become a worn out cliche.

A new variant is to quote that survey as if it still was in the 2005 revision, The New Book of Lists. If you do a Google Books search you won’t find it in there. I also checked the index and table of contents in a printed copy over at Borders and couldn’t find it.

As I mentioned last year, that old survey just stumbles on like a mumbling zombie. Happy Halloween!

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