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Speaking in public
By Steve Brewer
Scripps Howard News Service


April 03, 2005

Got fear? Odds are, if someone wants you to make a little speech, you're feeling anxious and afraid.

Fear of public speaking is the most common social phobia, experts say, affecting as much as 75 percent of the population. More people fear public speaking than fear spiders, snakes, scorpions, toddlers, you name it. Some people are so afraid of speaking in public that they get physical symptoms, such as nausea, stuttering or trouser dampness.

There's a name for this fear: glossophobia. You'd think fear of public speaking would be podiaphobia or something melodic like that, but no, it's glossophobia, from the Greek "glosso," meaning "tongue," and "phobia," meaning "fear." Fear of tongue. Those wacky, fun-loving Greeks. Where do they come up with this stuff?

I give a lot of speeches in my job. Fortunately, I'm one of the lucky 25 percent of Americans who do not fear speaking in public. I'm afraid of everything else, but not public speaking. I'm so comfortable at a podium that the way I act has been diagnosed as Hypo-Anxiety Modality, or HAM, which means once I start talking, the only way to shut me up is to send everyone home and turn off all the lights.

But I recognize that not everyone is lucky enough to be a HAM. Nervous public speakers find that any kind of talk, from a short presentation at work to a commencement address to an extended eulogy, can be cause for alarm. For you glossophobics out there, we offer the following tips:

Do be prepared. Write out your speech ahead of time rather than trying to "wing it." Last time we looked, you had no wings. A little rehearsal never killed anybody.

Don't read directly from the written speech the whole time. Look up occasionally. Try to act as if you're talking to a friend rather than droning on from some printed document.

Do speak slowly and clearly. You are not an auctioneer.

Don't speak so slowly that you hypnotize the audience.

Do make gestures for emphasis to keep the crowd's attention, but keep the gestures subtle and gentle. Jerky, broad movements make people think of Hitler.

Don't wink and give a "thumbs-up." President Bill Clinton ruined that one for everybody.

Do pause for effect. Also, if you're lucky enough to get applause or laughter, give it time to run its course. Don't talk over applause; it makes the audience unwilling to offer any more.

Don't pause in expectation of applause. The audience will let you know when. If you look around for someone to start clapping and no one does, you will embarrass yourself and others, and you might actually melt into the floor.

Do find a friendly face in the audience. Tell yourself you're talking to that one person, not a multitude of people.

Don't, however, stare at that person the whole time. Staring gives people the creeps and might cause the recipient to run screaming from the room.

Don't picture audience members in their underwear. This feat of imagination is often recommended to anxious speakers as a way to help them relax, a reminder that audience members put their boxers on one leg at a time, too. But this doesn't work unless the audience is extremely attractive. In most cases, picturing the audience in its underwear will produce giggling or mild nausea.

The main thing to remember is that, in most cases, the audience is on your side. It wants you to succeed in your presentation. It wants to be entertained and informed. It is there because it's interested in what you have to say.

So relax. Probably very few, if any, audience members are picturing you in your underwear. Really.


Redding, Calif., author Steve Brewer's latest book is called "Boost."
Contact him at ABQBrewer(at)

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