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I’m More Afraid of Public Speaking than Dying!

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Written by guest blogger: Mark S. Caldwell

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.

– Jerry Seinfeld, 1993

From this simple joke started the urban legend about death and public speaking. The genesis of this, according to a discussion on, comes from the 1977 “Book of Lists” citing results from a team of researchers from the polling firm Bruskin-Goldring, asking 3000 U.S. residents about their fears. That unscientific study found that forty-one percent of the respondents cited speaking in public as a major fear. As Chad Shultz indicated in this post, “People simply were asked for some fears off the top of their head, and more of them happened to mention public speaking than death.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, as quoted by Statistic Brain,  the number of people with a diagnosed phobia is 6.3 million and seventy-four percent of the US Population has a fear of public speaking, or Glossophobia. Joshua W. Davies, a communications consultant at the LAM Institute, uses even different figures, saying an estimated 5.2 million Americans (aged 18 to 54) have a diagnosed form of social phobia that would might emerge when public speaking (see: Is there any real evidence that people are more afraid of public speaking than dying?). In other words, the connection between public speaking and death is just an urban legend.

Yet, for many of us, speaking at trial or performing at a NITA program produces great levels of anxiety. As humans we have that built-in mechanism of fear that makes us want to fight or run away. When we are asked to speak either at trial or at a NITA program, we can neither fight nor flee. We must stand there and speak. More importantly, our client cannot speak – we are there to speak on the client’s behalf. If you are part of that group who actually has glossophobia, or if you are simply nervous about doing your best for your client, what can you do?

Dr. June Johnson, President of Voice Power and a speech and communication coach, suggests, “Fear can make you nervous but nerves need not make you fearful. While fear is difficult to channel, nerves, when channeled into energy, can be a positive force bringing vitality and enthusiasm into your speech. All performers rely on nervous energy to enhance their performance. Control your fear rather than allowing it to control you.”

NITA has a cadre of extraordinary communications specialists who teach at our programs. They offer solid tips on things you can do to help reduce your anxiety. Some of those tips include:

1. Breathe. Making sure your brain has sufficient oxygen helps to reduce the stress response. When anxious or stressed the amygdala, a part of our mid-brain, releases large amounts of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as adrenaline. According to Nick Ortner, this sudden flood of hormones causes a series of physiological responses, including shutting down the creative center of the brain and increasing heart rate. Increasing the amount of oxygen helps to calm this release and helps you master the anxiety. (See, Public Speaking .) Before beginning, inhale deeply several times, using your full lung capacity instead of breathing high in your chest. In their book The Articulate Advocate (ISBN-13: 978-0-9796895-0-5), Brian Johnson and Marsha Hunter give great advice on using the “time warp” created by a faster heart rate to your advantage.

2. Exercise before you start. Similar to breathing, exercise helps clear your blood stream of the stress hormones and helps clears you head. There are countless tales of lawyers running up the stairs or doing push-ups in the restroom. According to Mary Ryan of the Porsche Group, exercise may help you channel your fear so it enhances your performance.

3. Talk to your audience – not at them. This includes making eye contact and using conversational language. As Tina Habas of Keating Wagner Polidori Free, P.C. in Denver suggests, “Simplify your language – don’t dumbify it.” You do not have to talk down to those in your audience. You do have to help them understand. Trials are not lectures, but a communication of your client’s story and the wrong done to them.

4. Do not worry about making mistakes. People appreciate your situation and will forgive you if you admit making an error. Ours is a nation of forgiveness. Celebrities and professional athletes sometimes do terrible things. Then they announce they are sorry, go into rehabilitation clinics, and return to the spotlight and a new contract. We still admire them. If you are honest enough to admit making a mistake or asking a bad question you will be given the benefit of the doubt.

5. Use notes appropriately. Except for those gifted with photographic memories most people need notes to guide them through trial. This does not mean you should allow fear to lock you into reading straight from your notes. Notes should be memory triggers that refresh your recollection. You should memorize the beginning of your opening statement and closing argument where eye contact is essential.

6. Be prepared, and practice. Extemporaneous speaking does not suggest a lack of preparation. A thorough understanding of the facts and laws allows you to speak not from a script but from your heart. The better you know your subject the less stress you will have and the more likely is becomes that you will master your fear. David Mann, communications consultant and actor, recommends you practice your trial speeches by speaking “out loud.” Practice in circumstances similar to what you will experience at trial – if you stand, practice standing, and if forced to sit, practice seated.

7. Get yourself into the right frame of mind. Starting before you are actually ready to begin ensures you are not truly confident. Silence can be a powerful tool that also helps you think about what you will say next as the listener considers what you just said. Mark Oates of the Chicago office of Baker & McKenzie uses silence in a purposeful way to add drama to specific points and to demonstrate control in the courtroom. Before you begin, say silently to yourself, ‘I’m ready – let’s do this now.’

About Mark S. Caldwell

Mark S. Caldwell is NITA's Director for Specialty Programs. In this role Mr. Caldwell designs, administers and serves as an instructor for programs in bankruptcy litigation, child advocacy, and tax litigation. Other programs included under the Specialty Programs banner include NITA's work with other organizations for co-sponsored programs and many of NITA's pro bono courses. His role in NITA's pro bono efforts includes serving as Program Director for many of NITA's courses for lawyers and advocates who represent under-served communities, including Native American lay advocates, legal services lawyers, lawyers and advocates who represent those living with disabilities and the elderly, lawyers and advocates who appear in cases involving children, and lawyers who work in public service positions. In addition to his involvement in these courses, Mr. Caldwell also serves as NITA's Program Director for the Basic Trial Skills and Deposition Programs in Colorado. He is also an instructor at many of NITA's Teacher Training Programs.

4 thoughts on “I’m More Afraid of Public Speaking than Dying!
  • Thank you for putting the fear of public speaking into perspective.
    Can I add another tip about public speaking. I teach 40 public speaking courses a year and there seems to be a secret about public speaking that shouldn’t be a secret. It is understanding blank faces. As a speaker if we are not careful we carry on using normal conversational skills when we are speaking to a group.
    When you have a standard conversation – you normally get nods, smiles, agreements back from the listener however when we speak to a group ALL that changes. All you see is blank faces.
    So we start speaking to blank faces and they don’t usually smile (at least not very often) or nod their heads (some people will but again not a lot) so we are left struggling with critical thoughts about our performance. But blank faces are normal in audience – they are just listening faces.
    So try not to read people’s faces when you speak publicly because your brain will interpret any sign as negative.
    Of course there is more to getting your head around public speaking but when I teach public speaking this is the point that helps a lot of people.

  • Mark:

    Your post should have been titled Seven Tips for Better Public Speaking. That part is excellent.

    But, the opening has superficial research that spouts a new urban legend. That 1973 survey was done by R. H. Bruskin Associates. Bruskin-Goldring did another one of 1000 people two decades later in 1993. See:

    Also, the Statistic Brain claim about 74% fearing public speaking is bogus, and not really from the National Institute of Mental Health. See:

    A week before your post I blogged about how Either way you look at it, public speaking really is not our greatest fear:

    So, the number one fear claim is an urban legend. What is not a legend is that some people (college students) really do fear public speaking more than they fear death. James C. McCroskey told a story about it:
    and James H. Geer measured it with of the first fear survey schedules. In a 1965 study of college students, fear of public speaking ranked sixth for men and seventh for women, and death ranked twelfth for both men and women:


  • Folks interested in preparing to speak persuasively at trial or any other public speaking opportunity will learn a lot from Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on You Tube. She says that 2 minutes of preparation spent in a “power pose” will enhance one’s presentation. It is a drill I plan on introducing at NDLS this January.

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