Public Speaking: Fear vs. Anxiety

November 11, 2013

fear of public speakingComedian Jerry Seinfeld summed up mankind’s psychological weakness nicely when he shared his observations about how people fear public speaking more than dying. However, the reality is that only a few of us are truly fearful of public speaking. Being fearful and being nervous are two completely different emotions that often get mixed up.

If you had to storm the beaches of Normandy, you would be fearful. If you had to share to an executive board a new proposal, you would be anxious.

There’s a significant difference between the two emotions. Let’s unpack them separately.


Fear pertains to real and existing threats. It’s what people like author Seth Godin like to call an "ancient compass." It has always existed, and will continue to exist, to stop you from taking too large of risks. Imagine walking down a dark alley. Immediately, your heart rate is going to jump from 70 beats to 160 beats per minute. Perhaps, you are running from a T-Rex. Now, your heart rate is at 200 beats per minute - a level where you start to lose control over bodily functions. That’s because there is a real and impending danger. You are fearful in these moments.


Anxiety pertains to worries about the unknown. Back in the 1950s, the Walter Reed Institute conducted a study on anxiety by using rhesus monkeys. They broke the monkeys out into two groups where one group (let’s call it Group A) was randomly shocked and the other group (Group B) could pull a lever to avoid the shock. After several weeks of doing this study, all monkeys in Group B contracted ulcers and passed away. Why? They were anxious of the upcoming event.

As a business culture, we build presentations up to be a big deal. They can help you close that sale, get that promotion or raise that extra capital. The reality: Presentations are in fact important -- they can make or break your career. Therefore, it's likely that the emotion you're feeling is anxiety rather than real fear. As presenters, we need to recognize this reality so that we can address and handle anxiety more effectively moving forward.

Next week: I'll write about ways to manage and cure presentation anxiety.

Read More: Presentation Lessons From Hollywood

About the Author

Scott Schwertly is the author of How to Be a Presentation God and CEO of Ethos3, a Nashville, TN-based presentation boutique providing professional presentation design and training for national and international clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to branded individuals like Guy Kawasaki. If Scott is not working with his team building presentations, you will find him in the pool, on the bike, or on a long run. Scott lives in Nashville, TN with his wife and three dogs. He has a B.A. and M.B.A. from Harding University.