Communication Currents

Public Speaking: What Causes Some to Panic?

August 1, 2009
General Communication Studies

What is your greatest fear? If you are like many Americans, your answer is speaking before an audience. Public speaking is often said to be the greatest fear a person can have, even greater than death. Consequently, researchers, practitioners, counselors, and teachers have long been examining the causes and treatments for public speaking anxiety with the goal of helping individuals overcome this widespread fear.

Researchers at Texas Christian University have been working to identify individual differences in the ways people respond to the threat of speaking before an audience. It appears that there are at least two types of people: those that experience more of a cognitive response (i.e. anxious apprehension), and those that experience more of a physiological reaction (i.e. anxious arousal). Those that fit into the cognitive category primarily worry over possible misfortune associated with speaking before an audience. They often fret over possible shortcomings and overestimate the probability of negative outcomes. On the other hand, those that fit into the physiological grouping often experience intense physiological sensations, like dizziness or a racing heart, while speaking. Unfortunately, such physiological symptoms are often misinterpreted as catastrophic and lead to panic. Once a threatening social stimulus, such as speaking before an audience, becomes associated with panic, it is more likely to trigger similar reactions in future situations. As a result, a person may try to avoid speaking in public altogether. The distinction between the two types of responses is believed to be largely due to biological differences. Those prone to experiencing primarily physiological symptoms are thought to have a more reactive nervous system.

In order to further their understanding of those prone to panic, Amber Finn, Chris Sawyer, and Ralph Behnke recruited 156 males to undergo a balloon-burst test to determine their physiological reactivity to stress. The participants were blindfolded and asked to inflate a small balloon until instructed to stop. Once the balloon was fully inflated, the experimenter pinpricked the balloon causing it to pop. Then, the participant's peak heart rate was measured using a standard physiograph machine. Afterwards, the participants completed a self-report survey to determine how nervous they typically get when speaking before an audience.

A few weeks later, the participants delivered a presentation to an audience of about 20 peers and their course instructor. Their heart rate was measured during the performance. Immediately following their performance, the participants completed a self-report survey, indicating their anxiety levels during the speech. The participants' heart rates during their performance and their self-reported anxiety scores were combined to determine their anxious arousal level.

As predicted, speakers with heightened physiological reactivity or higher heart rates during the balloon-burst test, and self-reported trait public speaking anxiety had significantly more anxious arousal during their performance. Thus, the researchers identified two characteristics or traits (i.e. physiological reactivity and trait anxiety) that predispose individuals to panic while speaking before an audience. This finding should aid researchers and educators alike in formulating strategies for early detection of panic and ultimately for helping individuals manage and perhaps overcome their fear of public speaking.

If you are one of the many individuals who fears speaking before an audience, one of the best suggestions is to get some experience. This might sound counterintuitive, but it works. Do what you fear most. Researchers have found that speaking before a congenial, supportive audience can help reduce public speaking anxiety. Toastmasters International is a nonprofit organization that offers individuals a place to practice and hone their public speaking skills in a friendly atmosphere. Or, you can volunteer to speak at a community or religious event, or just practice speaking in front of a group of your friends and/or family members. Taking advantage of opportunities to speak in a supportive environment may just help you learn to overcome your fear of public speaking.

About the author (s)

Amber N. Finn

Texas Christian University

Associate Professor