What is public speaking anxiety?
Public speaking anxiety might be the most common phobia in existence. The technical term for this phenomenon is ‘glossophobia’. This form of anxiety affects a substantial proportion of adults (1), so you are definitely not alone if you experience this problem.
Glossophobia is basically a form of social anxiety that centres around the fear of negative evaluation by others. Anxious people typically fear they will do something embarrassing (e.g., stutter over their words), their mind will go blank, not making sense to audience members, or showing visible signs of distress (e.g., shaking, sweating).
Some people can get around public speaking fears by avoiding situations in which speaking is required. However, this strategy is not open to people who must perform public speaking duties (often as part of their jobs). Avoidance also blocks valuable learning opportunities to help reduce anxiety (e.g., a public speaking scenario going better than predicted). People engage in other unhelpful behaviours. For instance, some over-prepare in the hope this will protect them from failure. Other people intensively scan their audience for signs of disapproval (e.g., a bored-looking audience member).
More effective options
There are several tools you can use to address this form of anxiety. These techniques range from diaphragmatic breathing and thought challenging, to working through a carefully planned set of exposure tasks (i.e., facing feared situations in a planned way supported by anxiety management skills). We also look to identify and phase out counterproductive ‘safety behaviours’ (e.g., overpreparation and audience scanning as mentioned above).
These tools are drawn from a cognitive behavioural approach (CBT) to public speaking anxiety. I like this approach because it is practical and generally works well for people.
Like other forms of anxiety, glossophobia can be tackled successfully. Public speaking is never going to be 100% comfortable for most people, and some degree of anxiety is completely understandable. But, many can achieve a notable reduction in discomfort to make this situation significantly more tolerable.
(1) Stein MB, Walker JR, Forde DR. Public-Speaking Fears in a Community Sample: Prevalence, Impact on Functioning, and Diagnostic Classification. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1996;53(2):169–174. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1996.01830020087010