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From Fear to Finesse

A warm, cloudy heat flushed my cheeks as the student at the front of the room delivered

the last paragraph of his speech. In just less than a fleeting minute, it would be my turn. Every

word that left my mouth would be heard by thirty of my peers, and that thought elicited an

agitated and hyper kaleidoscope of butterflies to invade my stomach. I winced when my teacher

called my name as the next presenter, and my legs shook as I walked from my desk to my doom.

They, along with my hands and quiet voice, shook until I resumed my position back in the refuge

of my seat.

At the time, I had been this quiet and shy middle school student who dreaded every

public speaking and presentation assignment given. I had never imagined that, by the time I

became a senior in high school, I would classify myself as a ballroom dancer. Ballroom dancing

is an extracurricular activity that not only requires physicality, but also a persona that embodies a

performer. It takes practice and skill to have confidence in performing a dance routine, and

confidence was something that I had very little of when I first began taking lessons. My first

performance went well dance-wise, but following that demonstration I was told by numerous

people that I looked as if I had no interest in dance at allI had not smiled once. This was not

because I had not enjoyed myself, yet because smiling was something I had not even considered.

In my mind at the time, nailing the choreography and technique were at the top of my list of


However, as time moved on after middle school and I continued to practice, performing

became easier. Just a few years ago, I performed a routine and was surprised to find that, after so

many years of dancing, I had no nerves at all when I danced that day. It took me over three years

to become completely comfortable with displaying my talent in front of an audience.


Not only did my ability to perform improve, but my fear of public speaking diminished

the more that I danced. I have always wondered how and why dancing was able to help me with

such a strong anxiety. If I had not started dancing, would I still have had that same fear and

unease at the prospect of giving a speech? The answer to that question is unknown, yet another

aspect of public speaking, the common fear of it, still remains in my mind and has led me to

develop my senior project question: Why is the fear of public speaking and performing so


In order to find the answer to this question, I began my research by interviewing high

school public speaking teacher Jeff Hagerstrand. I walked into Northgates Little Theater on a

Thursday at the beginning of fifth period to find a bustling group of Production Workshop

students, each in groups spread across the room. Many were scattered throughout the audiences

chairs, while another large number stood on the stage reviewing lines and rehearsing dialogue.

Mr. Hagerstrand emerged from a cluster of students and confirmed that I was present to

interview him. He signaled me to a chair in the aisle furthest from the stage and moved to the

center row as he told me he would be available as soon as he graded some of the students

performances. Seated in the red cushioned chair, I listened intently as the first student dragged a

stool to the center of the stage and began her dialogue.

The Production Workshop class sat throughout the audience, and the members of the

class were silent as the students courageous and captivating voice filled the room. Her emotional

and sad words as she impersonated a depressed teenager resonated within my heart, and I was

rooted back into reality when she gave the last words of her presentation and returned to her

bubbly self, allowing me to remember that her previously distressed and vulnerable persona was

merely a facade. I could not imagine that someone with such confidence and comfortability on


stage could ever be diagnosed with stage fright. However, Mr. Hagerstrand clarified my


You cant not have stage fright if [someone] is human, they have stage fright he

said. When asked if there is a difference between the fear of public speaking and the fear of

performing, Mr. Hagerstrand replied that there is a contrast only in the sense that the people

who are doing it for the arts want to do it, but those who are public speaking have to do it.

Regardless, Mr. Hagerstrand implied that all people have stage fright at a certain point in their

lives, especially considering that public speaking is required in school, in the workforce, and in

many more environments. He helped to teach me that the fear of public speaking and performing

innately resides in everyone.

It all starts with the definition of a fear itself. A fear refers to anxiety or distress that an

individual feels when placed in a situation that would elicit the same apprehension for all

individuals put in that same circumstance (Kahn and Doctor 3-4). Many people often use the

terms fear and phobia interchangeably, but do they have the same meaning? Nothe key

difference distinguishing the two is that, unlike a fear, a phobia refers to anxiety or distress that

cause severe reactions for only specific people in a given situation (Kahn and Doctor 4). Because

fears and phobias are defined as two different concepts, which more accurately represents the

apprehension of public speaking and performing? It can be both. All people fear public speaking,

but there are some who have such strong reactions to having to speak in front of an audience that

they have physical responses or need to take medication (Kahn and Doctor 251).

Many are unaware that the phobia of performing is simply called performance anxiety, or

tophophobia, while the phobia of public speaking is called glossophobia (Kahn and Doctor 265).

This phobia, with glosso meaning tongue, is estimated to be common in every 3 of 4 people


(Schwertly). Glossophobia and performance anxiety are both social phobias, meaning they deal

with the fear of social situations that require interaction with others (Richards). For each

individual with a social phobia, there are different factors that contribute to the onset of the

disorder. Biologically, social phobias can be inherited. When a persons parents are shy or have

difficulty with public speaking, genetics can often carry over the trait into their children.

Furthermore, the combination of genetics and individual physiology can play a major role in how

strongly a person reacts to social situations. The allotment of a neurotransmitter NPY, or

neuropeptide Y, is genetically influenced, meaning it is not learned but innate in those who are

genetically predisposed to contain higher levels. Those who are high in NPY are more likely to

feel susceptible to anxiety or nervousness in intense pressure situations and are also known to be

more psychologically resilient (Stossel).

Along with the biological factors that cause social phobias come the psychological

factors. Temperament, which influences how an individual reacts to and behaves towards other

people and situations, is a contributor to the development of social phobias (Petrus). A

component of temperament is shyness, a characteristic that most people experience at some time

in their life, especially when suffering from low self-esteem (Kahn and Doctor 37). Furthermore,

conditioning, defined as a behavioral process whereby a response becomes more frequent or

more predictable in a given environment as a result of reinforcement can occur in that a person

develops a relationship between two different situations, occurrences, or objects that creates the

response (The Editors of Encyclopdia Britannica). For example, people may associate the

feeling of butterflies in their stomach with the feeling of having multiple people watch their

mouth move, therefore conditioning them to always feel anxious when they anticipate standing

in front of an audience. This concept translates into the notion that traumatizing events can cause


a social phobia as well. Say a student stumbled in their speech and their classmates laughed at

their fault. Their embarrassing experience may condition them to associate the act of giving a

speech with humiliation because they have encountered the situation and remember its


Environment is another key concept that is often applied to the development of social

phobias. Think about itmost people develop social phobias, glossophobia and performance

anxiety specifically, around the age of thirteen (Mayo Clinic Staff). At thirteen years old, many

adolescents are being forced into an abundance of new social situations they had never

previously encountered. As young teenagers begin to form cliques and consider their appearance

and reputation more, social phobias are easy to fall prey to. Many people this age also experience

the spotlight effect, or a phenomenon in which people overestimate the attention that others are

giving them, therefore causing individuals to believe that the spotlight falls only on them (Myers

512). For example, if a student were giving a presentation and could feel himself or herself

blushing, they might assume that each audience member notices their blushing, even though

reality says that less people notice than the person believes. As a result of this effect, the stakes

are raised when teenagers feel that their peers are evaluating them, and the increase in

presentations and speeches that come with middle school and high school plant adolescents

firmly into an inescapable trap where they are forced to speak and perform in front of others.

The fact that social phobias are frequent plays an important role in determining why

glossophobia and tophophobia are so common, but in terms of the fear of public speaking and

performing, it is something that we all, as human beings, have. This is partly caused by the brain

and how it interprets the stimuli that cause the fear itself. The old brain, or the part of the brain

located in the brain stem, can be attributed to our ancestors brains, meaning that evolutionary


psychologists would be most likely to consider this part of the brain as a cause of stage fright

(Simmonds). According to Donna Labermeier,

You may not be aware of this, but each and every one of us has a cavewoman or caveman
living inside our bodies. He or she is one of the many parts of the self. When our inner
caveperson feels that it is being singled-out, primitive instincts kick in telling us that
we are no longer a part of a group, and therefore, survival is slim to none. After all, how
are you going to fight off a saber-toothed tiger all by yourself? The bottom line is, we feel
threatened in a life or death kind of way. (Labermeier)

Here is an example: consider phobias and fears as methods of survivalif we fear an object or

situation, we are easily led to avoid that stimulus in order to keep ourselves safe and alive

(Fritscher). Evolutionary psychologists state that, if we consider public speaking as a danger to

our survival because we are isolated in front of a group, then we develop of a fear or phobia of it

because we are conscientious of our need to live.

Human instinct also contributes to the commonality of stage fright. Our midbrain, located

in and above the brainstem, relates to the instincts that people have in public speaking and

performing situations (McCaffrey). The emotions that are regulated by the midbrain trigger

people to feel nervous, especially when one thinks back to negative experiences that remind

people of humiliation (Mitchell). When in front of an audience, many instinctively begin to

blush, shake, or sweat due to stress and worry. Jeff Hagerstrand also discussed control: If they

are in control of their body and in control of their voice, then it is easy to say that theyre not

nervous. Girls twirl their hair, and many people say um, so we practice. Ballroom dance

instructor Walter Piche admitted in an interview that, as a teacher who has physical contact with

another person when performing, he can determine when his students are nervous because their

hands will shake or they will sweat as they try to focus on their choreography or overcome their

performance anxiety. On numerous occasions, these physicalities make people even more self-


conscious, causing new fears to occur in which people become overwhelmed by the idea of being

judged or blushing, sweating, shaking, and more, in front of others (Kahn and Doctor 40).

Our new brain, located in the frontal lobe, causes people to associate public speaking

with demands (Balaban). For instance, a teacher will assign a public speaking assignment, and

his or her students will view that assignment in terms of have tos: I have to have my speech

memorized, I have to speak loudly, I have to get a good grade, I have to make sure that I

do not stumble, I have to make sure that I look professional. As a result of these demands

forming in ones brain, there is an increase in nervousness because there is always the possibility

that these theoretical demands will not be met (Mitchell). Walter Piche discussed that, when

people begin to think they are forced to perform well, they begin to want to practice more, ask

lots of questions, stay quiet, have sweaty hands, go to the restroom often, or think about the

negative possibilities. This concept plays a major role in why the fear of public speaking is so

common. Because public speaking is universally considered as a requirement with multiple

demands, combined with the interpretation of these demands by the new brain, many develop

anxiety over convincing themselves that their speeches or performances must be perfect.

In order to overcome this barrier of achieving perfection, it is important for people to

rationalize the requirements that exist in their heads. Meaning, individuals must be reminded that

it is not essential for all demands to be met, let alone that some demands should be considered as

goals, and not orders. To ensure that people approach public speaking with this mindset, practice

is key. Many people are so afraid of public speaking that they fail to practice efficiently,

therefore resulting in an even greater fear because they feel underprepared. This unpreparedness

is another large factor that can lead to the development of the fear of public speaking and



With the numerous stimuli and causes of stage fright, as well as the high percentage of

those who have scientific phobias of public speaking and performing, it is easy to determine that

all human beings suffer from the thought of having to be in front of an audience. Whether an

individual is worried about the rate of survival, is predisposed to fear public speaking as a result

of their genes, or is cognitively focused on the demands that come with an assigned presentation,

there is an innate sense of panic that all people of all ages feel when they sense others eyes on

them. A quote by famous comedian Jerry Seinfeld reads, According to most studies, people's

number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound

right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than

doing the eulogy (Schultz).

Through researching and writing for my senior project paper, I learned a plethora of new

information on how stage fright develops and persists in all humans who are old enough to talk. I

have come to learn that phobias and fears reside more in biology and physiology than I had

previously understood. I knew from the curriculum in honors physiology and advanced

placement psychology that there are certain brain parts responsible for controlling fear but

eventually comprehended through researching for this paper that the part of the brain

accountable for stage fright really depends on the researcher. Evolutionary psychologists, for

example, may have a different perspective on phobias than cognitive psychologists.

Furthermore, upon the research behind how stage fright exists, I have come to discover

many different techniques used to overcome it that are essential in not only diminishing

nervousness but also ensuring that ones performance goes as smoothly as possible. Whether it

be rehearsing in front of a mirror, giving a speech in front of parents, or performing before ones

harshest criticssiblings, practice is key in helping all to overcome the natural fear of public


speaking and performing. Feeling prepared can make a large difference in the reassurance that

one feels when they are pushed out of their comfort zone and into a spotlight.

Over all else, the most important concept that I have learned through writing my senior

paper is that the fear of public speaking and performing is universal. Going into my paper, I had

originally assumed that, while the number was great, only a select group of people are scared of

public speaking. The 75% who have glossophobia seemed accurate to me as I began researching,

and I simply deduced that the other 25% either had no problems with public speaking or enjoyed

being in front of a crowd. My interview with Jeff Hagerstrand helped me to better understand

that, while three-fourths of the human race has a phobia of public speaking, public speaking is

more accurately explained with the word fear because the nervousness behind public speaking

exists in everyone. While my fear of public speaking has diminished greatly through practice as

well as through dance, there is always a certain burst of anxious energy that I feel before

presenting. Writing my senior paper has brought me to realize that my anxious middle school self

who worried about every speech and performance was just an individual struggling to understand

that she was not the only one to feel that fear.


Works Cited


Kahn, Ada P., and Ronald M. Doctor. Facing Fears. Checkmark Books, 2000.

Myers, David G. Myers Psychology for AP. Worth Publishers, 2011.


Balaban, Madalina. Map of Emotions: What makes them click?,

Accessed 19 Mar. 2017.

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Genard, Gary. 10 Causes of Speech Anxiety that Create Fear of Public Speaking. The Genard

Method, 5 Jul. 2015,

Speech-Anxiety-and-How-to-Beat-Em. Accessed 14 Mar. 2017.

Labermeier, Donna. Why Most People Are Deathly Afraid of Public Speaking and What They

Can Do About It. Huffington Post, 19 Feb. 2014,

labermeier/why-most-people-are-death_b_4798597.html. Accessed 14 Mar. 2017.

Mayo Clinic Staff. Social anxiety disorder (social phobia). Mayo Clinic,

20032524. Accessed 7 Mar. 2017

McCaffrey, Patrick. Midbrain, Pons, Medulla, and Reticular Formation. CSU Chico, Accessed 15 Mar.



Mitchell, Olivia. The three causes of public speaking (and what you can do about them). Word


Accessed 14 Mar. 2017.

Petrus, Steven. Temperament is what? Petrus Psychology, 10 Nov. 2010, Accessed 7 Mar. 2017.

Richards, Thomas A. Social Anxiety Fact Sheet: What is Social Anxiety Disorder? Symptoms,

Treatment, Prevalence, Medications, Insight, Prognosis. Social Anxiety Association,

medications-insight-prognosis. Accessed 7 Mar. 2017.

Schultz, Chad. Do People Really Fear Public Speaking More Than Death? TM Vision, Accessed 20 Mar. 2017.

Schwertly, Scott. Glossophobia 101 - The Fear of Public Speaking. Ethos 3, 13 Oct. 2014, Accessed 6

Mar. 2017.

Simmonds, Ross. The Old Brain (Brain Stem). SlideShare, 2 Feb. 2015,

44154772/9-The_Old_Brain_Brain_Stem. Accessed 15 Mar. 2017.

Stossel, Scott. The Relationship Between Anxiety and Performance. Harvard Business Review,

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Primary Sources:


Hagerstrand, Jeff. High school public speaking teacher, Personal Interview. 9 Mar. 2017.

Piche, Walter. Ballroom dance instructor, Personal Interview. 8 Mar. 2017.