fear of public speaking

What Ministers Can Do About Their Fears of Public Speaking

Ordained Minister’s Free Online Guide to Mentorship, Pastoring, Personal & Leadership Development


 Ministers and the Fear of Public Speaking 

By Michael Mooney




Ordained ministers find themselves in situations where they must speak before audiences on regular occasions.  Yet many find themselves horrified at the idea of public speaking.  This paper is a consideration of the problem of speech apprehension. The problem itself, along with some of the most common causes of anxiety that are associated with public speaking will be explored. In addition, thought is given to steps that may reduce these fears and increase competence.


The Problem


Surveys indicate that one of the greatest fears Americans face is the issue of public speaking (Cunningham, Lefkoe, & Sechrest, 2006). This phobia can hinder quality of life, result in health issues, and prohibit promotions and career paths. In addition , most colleges in America require students to pass a public speaking class (or expect the equivalent) in order to graduate (Pearson, DeWitt, Child, Kahl, & Dandamudi, 2007). This fear is not like other phobias. Many may fear spiders (arachnophobia), small spaces (claustrophobia), firearms, and heights (acrophobia), but these things can realistically be avoided. Contrarily, whether leading an interest related small group, project managing, or being honored with an award, public speaking is bound to be encountered throughout the course of life. Therefore, finding ways to overcome, or at least cope with this phobia is paramount to not hindering success.




Glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, is typically known as stage fright, speech anxiety, or communication apprehension (CA). Pearson et al. (2007) reports CA as “an individual’s level of fear or anxiety associated with real or anticipated communication with another person or persons” (p. 160). This definition covers fear on the levels of interpersonal relations (such as one-on-one personal interaction), as well as public addresses. Experienced stage fright is described as causing profound discomfort, loss of thought, weakness in knees, increased heart rate, profuse sweating, and physical chills. In addition, researchers measure the symptoms of speech anxiety in two classes: high-speech-anxious, and low-speech-anxious. High-speech-anxious people are more threatened by the notion of public speaking, expect to perform negatively, and experience greater frustration than low-speech-anxious people (Witt, Brown, Roberts, Weisel, Sawyer, & Behnke, 2006).                              


Trait or State


There is much debate over the question of whether CA is a state of being, or an inherited trait. Those who hold the state position believe that personal perceptions of external stimuli results in the behavior of the CA condition. The emphasis of this position is upon external factors. In contrast, proponents of the trait perspective believe that CA is a biologically inherited characteristic. This position is highly controversial. At best, research has shown an association between genetics and CA (Pearson et al. 2007). Much of the disagreement seems to come from the implications of the two position’s fundamental arguments. State proponents are inclined to believe that this phobia can be overcome. They argue that CA is less susceptible to therapeutic conditioning if it is a trait. From a theoretical perspective, researchers may have discovered a common ground for both positions. Witt et al. (2006) reports, “trait anxiety measures how people generally feel across situations and time periods, and state anxiety is defined as the anxiety people feel in a particular situation and at a particular time” (p. 88).


Causes of Speech Apprehension


Next it seems appropriate to consider the causes of CA. Pribyl, Keaten, and Sakamoto (2001) report a developed list of situations that often result in anxiety: “novelty, unfamiliarity, formality, subordinate status, conspicuousness, degree of attention from others, and dissimilarity” (p. 149). In the context of speech apprehension, novelty is defined as a lack of association with speech material. Unfamiliarity speaks of a lack of acquaintance with the audience. Formality is the measure of order and rules present during the presentation. Subordinate status brings attention to the potentiality of unfavorable evaluations by superiors. Conspicuousness refers to the solitary efforts of the speaker during speech delivery. Like subordinate status, degree of attention from others deals with the fear of unfavorable evaluations by the audience in general. Dissimilarity refers to the uncertainty of the audience’s position toward the topic of the presentation (Pribyl et al. 2001).


The What if Question


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