Karen Degen – Set Free with EFTA study of people’s worst fears placed death at number seven. It seems we find at least six things to be far worse than death, with the most feared of all being speaking to a group.

Countless surveys and studies over the years have placed the fears in different order, but the number one fear never changes – fear of public speaking. In one study over 40% of people ranked it top of their list.

The vast majority of professional roles involve some level of public speaking, from participating in meetings to giving presentations to clients. It’s rare for a professional to divulge this fear to their employers so it goes undetected and untreated, with the result being ongoing inferior performance in this area, or complete avoidance of the situation. It is quite common for someone to call in sick on the day of a presentation.

One size does not fit all when it comes to treating this problem. It’s essential to look beneath the fear and find the contributing factors. One common contributor is the loathing many sufferers have of being looked at or being the focus of attention. Underneath this will be yet another contributing factor, often the fear of being judged or falling short of the task. Underpinning this will be the core issue, which will be unique to the individual, as we all have different life experiences. Often the only way to find it is to seek professional help.

If you prefer to self diagnose, one of the best ways is to ask yourself “why” five times. For instance:

1. Why am I feeling this way about speaking to this group?
Answer: I don’t like being the focus of attention.

2. Why don’t I like being the focus of attention?
Answer: Because I feel scrutinized. Like they are thinking I’m not good enough.

3. Why will they be thinking I’m not good enough?
Answer: Because I’m not good enough and I know they see that.

4. Why do I believe I’m not good enough?
Answer: Because I got sent away to boarding school when I was nine.

5. Why do I think that means I’m not good enough?
Answer: Because they didn’t send my sister and brother, only me. I’m the only one they didn’t keep so I can’t have been wanted. I can’t have been good enough.

Of course this is a very simplistic way of looking at it and the human psyche is rarely simplistic. Often there are multiple core issues. In this particular case the emotions and beliefs formed around being sent to boarding school have to be addressed and cleared before the fear can be eliminated.

Sometimes the core issue is a time we have failed in front of other people in the past, often in childhood. At the heart of it for one sufferer was a speech competition when at primary school. She had previously done extremely well at these competitions and this time her whole family and her friends had come to watch her. For some reason she lost her composure and “blurted it out”, much to her embarrassment. She felt she had let her family down. A memory like this can seem unimportant in adulthood and often carries no obvious emotion when it’s brought to mind, but the complex human brain can make connections at a subconscious level. The thought of speaking to a group can subconsciously trigger emotions connected with that event, impacting on the ability to speak effectively, or at all.

For many it is not something as obvious as having given a poor speech in childhood. Far more common with sufferers is a situation in the past when they got something wrong and everyone looked at them. The feelings of embarrassment and humiliation remain in the subconscious mind waiting to be triggered by the next time they are looked at by a group of people. That ‘group of people’ may be any situation where more than one person is present.

If over 40% of people rank their worst fear as speaking to a group, it’s likely that someone in your workforce is hampered by it, and if they are hampered by it so is your business. In a professional environment people are generally unwilling to admit to this fear. According to Mark Twain however “There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars.”