Manner of Speaking

The Public Speaking Fear Grid


It’s no secret that many people are afraid of public speaking. As Jerry Seinfeld has said, “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two! This means, to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Even those who are not afraid of public speaking get nervous from time to time. Just remember the words of Mark Twain: “There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars.”

Being nervous is completely natural. I am always a bit nervous whenever I have to speak in public. The adrenalin is flowing and I want to do a good job. But after years of practice, I am able to channel that nervous energy in a constructive way and the audience doesn’t see the nervousness. I relish the opportunity to speak at every occasion because it is another chance to pass a message to people and it is another chance for me to improve.

Having worked with thousands of people over the years, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon. While there are those who are extremely nervous in any speaking situation, more often than not, people tell me that they are only really nervous in certain specific situations. And those situations are usually based on two criteria: the number of people in the audience and how well the speaker knows those people.

I have set out different possibilities in the grid below.

The vertical axis on the left measures the number of people in the audience. It starts with one person—because it’s not public speaking if there is nobody in the audience—and goes to 1,000. The number 1,000 is purely arbitrary; it could have been 5,000. I just wanted a number that indisputably represents a large audience. The more important factor is orange line “a”.

Orange line “a” represents the number beyond which a “small” audience become a “large” audience for a speaker. It is entirely subjective. For some, an audience of 25 is a large audience; for others, an audience is not large unless there are at least 75 people. There is no single number and there is no wrong number; it depends on the speaker.

The horizontal axis represents how well the speaker knows the audience. At the extreme left, are people we know the best: family; friends; colleagues. At the extreme right are complete strangers.

Blue line “b” represents the dividing point between an audience that the speaker knows and an audience that the speaker doesn’t know. It cannot be pinpointed like orange line “a” because it is not easily quantified. A speaker might know the audience a little, but not well. He might know some of the people, but not all of them. Again, it is entirely subjective. In general, I think of blue line “b” as the dividing point between an audience where I know the majority of the people and an audience where the majority of people are strangers.

Thus, we have the following “speaking quadrants”:

People often tell me that they are fine when it comes to speaking to certain quadrants but not others. Some people enjoy speaking to an audience they know but are fearful of strangers; for others, it’s the opposite. Some people like large audiences but are very nervous in front of small, intimate groups. Others are fine up to 15 or 20 people but start to seize up in front of larger audiences.

Again, it is entirely personal. The question is: How can we deal more comfortable speaking in those quadrants that are problematic? The answer: Practice!

Public speaking is a skill like any other; the more you do it, the better you will become and the more comfortable you will feel. And, getting comfortable with public speaking in one quadrant should help you feel more confident in the others. Nevertheless, to be truly confident in all four quadrants, you need to speak in all four quadrants. Below are some suggestions about ways in which to get practice in each.

Small audience / People you know

Small audience / People you don’t know

Large audience / People you know

Large audience / People you don’t know

Of course, there are other options in addition to those listed above. Please feel free to share your ideas in the Comments section below. The goal is to make a conscious effort to speak in those quadrants that make you the most uncomfortable. When we move toward the things that scare us in life, we experience our greatest personal growth.

So if you don’t like speaking in a certain quadrant, why don’t you make a plan to do so in the next two months? If you do, you are on your way to getting off the grid.