Monday, July 30, 2012

Is fear of public speaking the greatest fear in the entire galaxy?

Who knows? Right now on this planet we don’t have access to statistics like that. (That’s the kind of information we’d expect to read in the fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). We don’t even have any real surveys for this whole world. But that hasn’t stopped people from making inflated claims, like that:

“Fear of public speaking has become the number one global fear...”

Those inflated claims often are connected with sales of books, courses, or coaching. First the problem is exaggerated, and then a quick fix solution is offered. It’s the same ridiculous process that is shown above in a century old cartoon about selling patent medicine.  

What about just the United States? On July 27th Tim Ellmore blogged that:

“You probably know that in frequent surveys taken among Americans, people continue to confirm that public speaking is their number one fear.”

On May 24th Sonya Hamlin claimed:

“... Did you know that the number one fear of the American public -- researched annually for the last 40 years -- has been and still is any form of public speaking! It comes up as number one year after year. Amazing.”

On February 4, 2011 Fred E. Miller claimed:

“Survey after survey consistently lists the ‘Fear of Public Speaking’ as the number one fear most people have.”

Those three claims all are nonsense. How do I know that? On this blog I have previously discussed fifteen surveys of adults in the U.S. There were only five where public speaking was the number one fear. Here are the rankings, and titles (with links) to those posts. The notation N/M means that the fear of speaking was ranked Nth out of M fears.

4/4: Getting a root canal done is scarier than public speaking or a job interview.

9/14: Lists where the fear of public speaking isn’t anywhere near the top - The Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study.

3/4: Poll by Reader’s Digest Canada found fear of public speaking wasn’t ranked first in 15 of 16 countries surveyed.

3/5: More American men feared poor sexual performance than public speaking.

6/10: U. S. residents are slightly more afraid of public speaking than of hell or fire.

3/6: Giving presentations isn’t the top fear of employees in the United States.

5/20: 20 fears for a new millennium - replacing the 1977 Book of Lists.

2/13 (twice) Fear of public speaking versus fear of snakes (Gallup Polls 2001 and 1998).

2/10: Ten high anxiety social situations.

1/14: Putting the fears puzzle pieces together: social and specific fears from the National Comorbidity Survey.

1/12: More Americans fear public speaking than getting fat, and death tied for third.

1/14: America’s Number One Fear: Public Speaking - that 1993 Bruskin-Goldring Survey.

1/4: According to LG, people fear public speaking even more than cleaning, dentists, or doing taxes.

1/14: The 14 Worst Human Fears in the 1977 Book of Lists: where did this data really come from?

Fear of public speaking was ranked number one only a third of the time, not all the time.

Back on June 4th I’d blogged about Sonya Hamlin’s claim being bogus. Since then I also posted on the Public Speaking Network group at LinkedIn asking if anyone knew of something to back up her claim. The only slightly positive reply was one that cited another phobia list that I’ve also blogged about - as being bogus.


gene bernice said...

Fear of public speaking has became number one fear on the planet. By speaking in front of public for many times will reduce the fear.

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Richard I. Garber said...


I don’t know of any evidence to back up your statement that fear of public speaking has become the number one fear on the planet.

Please read the post I linked to about how a 2010 Poll by Reader’s Digest Canada found fear of public speaking wasn’t ranked first in 15 of 16 countries surveyed. That’s the closest thing we have to a global survey - and it doesn’t support your claim at all.

TDawg said...

Thank you, Richard, for your research into that. I've always wondered where people got such claims.

Sure it can be scary, but as Bob Mackenzie said in his 2010 3nd place speech at the Toastmssters World Championship of Public Speaking, when discussing the prospect of death after a heart attack, the fear of public speaking was "Not even close".