Afraid To Speak: Normal Or Phobia?

Have you ever been paralyzed by fear at the thought of speaking? Or do you get a jolt of nerves before you speak? I do, but it doesn’t stop me. Though it can keep me up at night before I present.

I’ve learned that we really can overcome our fears and the nerves. That’s why this quote from Robby Gilbert, American animator, illustrator and cartoonist, is one of my favorites:

“It’s all right to have butterflies in your stomach. Just get them to fly in formation.”

I wish I’d heard that years ago, before I gave my very first speech – 11th grade – public speaking class. Until then, I’d only ever given an oral book report. For the assignment, I wrote my campaign speech – I was running for Secretary of our student organization.

I hand-printed the whole speech out on numbered index cards – double-spaced. My biggest fear: that I’d drop the cards and they’d scatter across the floor. That was until Mr. Kaplan, picked me to go first. FIRST!

I took a very deep breath – stood up. Even though it was just a few feet away, the walk to the lectern seemed to take forever. I put the cards down and looked out at my audience of 24 classmates and froze.

I heard Mr. Kaplan’s (my teacher) voice, as if he was very far away, “Just start. You can do it.”

I remember staring at that first card for what seemed like an eternity. “My fellow students,” I began, reading my opening word for word. I read the next line and the next – then I looked up and realized – they were listening to me. I took another deep breath and suddenly, I knew what I wanted to say. What seemed like a moment later, I closed with, “And that is why I stand before you today and humbly ask for your vote!”

Applause from 24 high school students isn’t deafening, but it sure made me feel like a champion. I got a lot of feedback. I took my note cards home and re-did them using most of what I learned. The following week, I gave that speech at the election assembly – my knees shaking even more than they did in class. But I had gotten great ideas for improving, I’d practiced, and even though I was scared and nervous, I delivered that speech with passion…and I won!

Back then I never dreamed I would become a nationally recognized speaker. For most of the year, I speak at least twice a month. From time to time, though, I may have a couple of months where I don’t get booked. That’s when I rely on my Toastmasters club to keep me speaking.

I always expected that with enough experience, the pre-speech jitters would simply go away. When I’m speaking regularly they are easier on me. But if I don’t speak for a while, they can come back pretty hard the first time I speak after a break. It used to throw me.

I’ve learned to embrace and welcome the nerves. They help me to ramp up my energy, giving me that extra something that allows me to communicate my expertise with passion. I have learned how to get the butterflies to fly in formation and you can, too.

Stress vs. Phobia

It might surprise you to know that there’s a HUGE difference between pre-speech jitters and full on glossophobia – the abnormal fear of speaking in public or trying to speak whether it’s one-to-one or to a small group. It may interest you to know that some people with glossophobia are famous dancers, singers, and actors – they can perform in public as long as they don’t have to speak in their own words.

How do you know if you are merely experiencing normal stress or “glossophobia?”

Stress can take many forms. For me, I feel nervous, I may have trouble falling asleep the night before, and I find myself checking and double-checking to make sure I have everything I will need.

The symptoms of glossophobia are generally more profound. They can include intense anxiety prior to speaking, or at the mere thought of having to communicate verbally. People with glossophobia often avoid any event, which could focus the group’s attention on them. They may experience physical distress, nausea, or panic simply thinking about the possibility of speaking. Many people report stress-induced speech disorders, which only occur when they speak in public. With coaching, even these fears can be overcome.

There Are Strategies That Can Help

My pre-speech jitters are caused by the very normal stress most of us experience before a big event or high-stakes presentation. We can learn to use that nervous energy to our advantage. It just takes preparation, practice, practice, and more practice. For me, the nerves begin the night before and stop as soon as I start giving my presentation. That’s because I’ve developed a tool chest of tips and techniques that ensure I get a good night’s sleep, or at least sufficient rest before I give a speech. These practices keep me on track right up until I utter my last word in front of my audience. Here are my top three practices:

  1. I read my entire speech before going to sleep.
  2. I meditate upon waking.
  3. I get there early and make sure the microphone and overhead projector are working.

There are proven strategies for overcoming most of the symptoms of glossophobia. When I work with a client who has a severe fear of speaking, we go slowly. We start out by creating a safe environment in which to work. Then we distinguish each symptom that affects them and choose strategies for overcoming them. The work gets easier as we go, one step at a time. The more you use each strategy, the more habitual it becomes. As the strategies become habitual, the your symptoms fade into the background.

You can BE and FEEL successful when you present.


Susan Bender Phelps
Susan Bender Phelps
SUSAN Bender Phelps is a corporate trainer, speaker and author. As founder and lead trainer of Odyssey Mentoring & Leadership, she helps clients create a culture of learning and support that allows their people to deliver breakthrough results time after time. Susan has 30+ years of experience working with leaders at all levels of organizations in many industries, including federal, state and local government, colleges, universities, for-profit and not-for-profit. Industries include healthcare, parks and recreation, advertising, accounting, scientists, physicists, architects, consulting engineers, construction, unions and clergy. Susan speaks nationally on mentorship, leadership and communication. She is the author of Aspire Higher, a collection of true success stories of career and business mentoring. She has a bachelor’s degree in Communication and a master’s in Management & Organizational Leadership. She is a certified SCUBA diver and loves to travel the world.

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  1. To be a good public speaker is to be the same person on the stage as off. If you’re going to talk to hundreds of people, you better be comfortable with talking the same way to groups of strangers in the elevator, the gym, or even at the mall. There are so many opportunities we have to become stellar speakers.

    Also, Toastmasters helps a lot too with the mechanics of public speaking.