Tuesday, December 20, 2016
Bursting the overblown claim that 95% of Americans fear public speaking at some level
One overblown claim I’ve found is that 95% (or 19 out of 20) of Americans fear public speaking at some level. It would be a marvelous statistic for marketing speaking training or coaching assuming it is true - but it isn’t.
This year it popped up in Raymond Evan’s book Public Speaking for Beginners:
“In fact, statistics show that some degree of public speaking fear/nervousness affects an estimated 95% of speakers.”
Back on March 5, 2010 I blogged about Is there really a pandemic of public speaking fear? I mentioned that Doug Staneart had also claimed:
“Surveys show that 95% of the population admit to feeling fear of public speaking or stage fright.”
Another article of his at The Leader’s Institute titled Top 5 Myths about Public Speaking Fear repeated it.
It popped up again in a post at the Inflenceology blog by Jeff Paro titled Marketing lessons from my 72 year old mother. He said:
“If your name can come to mind when a prospect or patient is looking for a solution to a problem, you are already light years ahead of your competition.
One way to be different is by speaking in public or video marketing.
Because statistically speaking around 95% of the population have some form of fear of public speaking or camera shyness.
That means, just by doing either, you are automatically DIFFERENT than 95% of people.
Not to mention, the authority positioning that you get from being a speaker.”
It’s time to burst that claim. In the past few years there have been surveys that asked about different levels of fear of public speaking. One was the 2016 Chapman Survey of American Fears (their third one). They found the following percentages:
Not Afraid - 38.3%
Slightly Afraid - 34.7%
Afraid - 16.4%
Very Afraid - 9.1%
Refused (or don’t know) 1.5%
Adding up Very Afraid + Afraid + Slightly Afraid, just 60.2% feared public speaking at some level other than zero (38.3%). That’s a long way from 95% - or 12 rather than 19 out of 20. The 2014 and 2015 Chapman surveys found similar results. (The 2014 one labeled the lower levels slightly differently). When we average all three, the percentages are very similar:
Not Afraid - 36.4%
Slightly Afraid - 34.6%
Afraid - 16.3%
Very Afraid - 9.8%
Very Afraid + Afraid - 26.1%
Very Afraid + Afraid + Slightly Afraid - 60.7%
In 2014 there also was a YouGov survey with four levels. I blogged about it on April 2, 2014 in a post titled YouGov survey of U.S. adults found they were most commonly afraid of snakes, heights, public speaking, spiders, and being closed in a small space. They found the following percentages:
Not Afraid At All - 23%
Not Really Afraid - 22%
A Little Afraid - 36%
Very Afraid - 20%
Very Afraid + A Little Afraid - 56%
Very Afraid + A Little Afraid + Not Really Afraid - 78%
That 78% from YouGov is higher than the 60.7% average from the Chapman surveys, but still much below the 95% claim. YouGov also surveyed British adults. On March 23, 2014 I blogged about how YouGov survey of British adults found they most commonly were afraid of heights, snakes, public speaking, spiders, and being closed in a small space. Results from that survey were close to those found from their U. S. one.
A bar chart presents results from all five surveys, and disproves the claim that 95% fear public speaking at some level. (Click on it to see a larger, clearer view). So, you can’t leapfrog 95% of people - it’s more likely just ~26%.
But, where did that 95% claim really come from? Actually it refers to communication apprehension (or anxiety) - something broader than fear of public speaking, and it is over three decades old.
One place where it shows up in a 1986 article by James C. McCroskey, Virginia P. Richmond, and Leonard M. Davis titled Apprehension About Communicating With Supervisors: A Test of a Theoretical Relationship Between Types of Communication Apprehension that appeared in the Western Journal of Speech Communication, Spring 1986, Vol. 50, pages 171 to 182. On page 173 they say:
“McCroskey and Richmond (1982) suggest that almost 95% of the population report having communication apprehension about communicating with some person or group.”
Cheryl Hamilton got the story right in her textbook, Communicating for Results 8th edition, 2008 page 157:
“In fact, Richmond and McCroskey reported that approximately 95% of those surveyed in the United States have some degree of communication anxiety.”
Then that statement mistakenly got changed into more narrowly referring just to fear of public speaking. You can find it that way at a web page titled What is Stage Fright at the Secrets To Public Speaking web site which says:
“It is important to note that 95% of all speakers experience some form of anxiety/nervousness when public speaking (Hamilton, C. (2008/2005). Communicating for Results, a Guide for Business and the Professions (eighth edition). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth).”
It also is at another web page at The Fear Of Public Speaking web site titled What Is The Fear of Public Speaking Called? which similarly says:
“According to academic researchers more than 95% people experience some degree of anxiety/nervousness when public speaking (Hamilton, C. (2008/2005). Communicating for Results, a Guide for Business and the Professions (eighth edition). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth).”
Both of those incorrect references might have come from the Wikipedia page on Glossophobia that got it wrong with 95% back in 2010, and then fixed it to read 75% in 2011.
UPDATE January 9, 2017
On January 7th I received the following comment from Professor Steven S. Vrooman:
“This is word salad. McCroskey and his various colleagues found a durable set of evidence that the 90-95% marker for communication anxiety is there in dozens of studies. Now, that number gets broken down into levels of fear, with 30 and 45 being high and mod high levels. This the commonly reported 75% number.The other 15 have a manageable but relevant anxiety. I am shocked you would use shoddy public opinion polling to try to discredit 50 years of peer-reviewed research. In the end, you suggest anxiety and fear are different. Okay. But that's an intellectually dishonest contribution to this literature.”
That is an amazing display of academic arrogance, beginning with an insult.
Merriam-Webster defines word salad as:
“a jumble of extremely incoherent speech as sometimes observed in schizophrenia.”
What I said about the fear of public speaking was NOT word salad. Instead it was a coherent discussion of some recent statistics about the fear of public speaking. Professor Vrooman incoherently replied by trotting out statistics for communication anxiety, which I had noted was a different and broader concept. And, although he has blogged about why you should Cite Your Sources!, he didn’t bother to give a link or even a title to a magazine article.
Vrooman also whined that I was using shoddy public opinion polling. But textbooks on public speaking have been referring to the 1973 Bruskin and 1993 Bruskin-Goldring polls for decades. Courses on public speaking have been marketed with the claim that public speaking was the number one fear (greater than death). James C. McCroskey referred to Bruskin in his textbook An Introduction to Rhetorical Communication, as I blogged about in a 2014 post on Busting a myth - that 75% of people in the world fear public speaking. Mary Hinchcliff Pelias had an article on pages 41 to 53 in the January 1989 issue of Communication Education magazine titled Communication Apprehension in Basic Public Speaking Texts; An Examination of Contemporary Textbooks. She looked at 25 of them, and found that 13 (including McCroskey) referred either to the Bruskin survey or the article about it in the 1977 Book of Lists.
Public opinion polls are important because they do random national surveys. I’m not aware of McCroskey and his co-workers having ever done one on public speaking fear (or communication anxiety). There thus is doubt as to whether their conclusions apply to adults in general, or just college students. But there have been national surveys on fear of public speaking published in peer-reviewed magazines. They were not done by communications academics, but found even lower percentages for fear than the public opinion polls I cited in this blog post.