I’ve just been researching how many people are scared of public speaking. And in doing that I am really shocked by a story from the 1960s that I came across in a study of Communication Anxiety (CA). Let me give some background before I tell the story. CA is a broader term than public speaking fear and would include speaking up in class, talking with strangers as well as public speaking. The large study of college students by Professor James C. McCroskey showed that40% of the students had high Communication Anxiety and 30% had moderately high anxiety.
What shocked me was the reason why he carried out the research. In the late 1960s public speaking classes at Penn State University, Pennsylvania, were compulsory. You had to pass public speaking class in order to get your degree. The consequences of that rule seems to have been tragic and may have contributed to student deaths.
Professor McCroskey writes
One evening I received a phone call at home from a Penn State psychologist. He asked me some questions about one of my students, wanting to know if this student was scheduled to present her speech the follow day. I informed him that she did. I asked him why he wanted he wanted to know. He informed me that they had just rescued this student from an attempt to commit suicide by jumping off the top of one of the highest buildings at the university. She had indicated that she just could not face having to give another speech. Needless to say, this shook me up. I had never noticed this student to be any more reticent than any other students. Obviously, I could not recognize a reticent when I saw one! (Years later, we learned that many high CAs are able to conceal their fears/anxieties. One cannot be sure what students are high CAs by looking at them, unless you have the skills equivalent to those of Phillips). I talked to Phillips about this attempted suicide, and he expressed concern also. He informed me that there had been a number of suicides by students in recent years. He and I were able to get the administration to identify the students who had committed suicide and the enrollments in required public speaking classes. There were 14 suicides recorded, and all but one of those students were currently enrolled in required public speaking classes at the time of their death. Was this just coincidence? Possibly, but the odds are strongly against it.
You can rubbish the connection as pure chance but it’s not what the Professor believed. Compulsory public speaking classes were dropped soon afterwards.
Up until this story I’ve always tried to challenge the notion that “Public speaking is more scary than death” . I do think that we get public speaking fear way out of perspective. But if what the professor says is true, I might have to eat my words. So please no compulsory public speaking classes.
I also really believe that is possible to re-think public speaking fear so it becomes at the very least manageable. Every day I help people who are really scared to face these fears.
You do not need to jump.