January 5, 2009

Does public speaking anxiety lessen as we age?



I had an interesting conversation with my doctor the other day about public speaking. Because one of the concerns of speakers is that they'll be judged by the audience members, she wondered if older people are less afraid of public speaking than younger people, due to the fact that older people "have gotten over themselves," in her words.

What she's saying is that, the older we get, the less we care about what people think of us. The less we care about making a mistake or looking foolish. And if this is the case, how does this affect our feelings about public speaking?

I thought this was a fascinating question and decided to put it out to my readers.

Have you experienced less stress about public speaking as you've gotten older?

Do you find that you are less concerned with people's opinions of you and therefore more comfortable with speaking?

Of course, there are other reasons people are uncomfortable with speaking, and age may or may not play a role. I'd love to hear your opinions and experiences. Please share in the comments!

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15 comments. Please add yours! :

Nick R Thomas said...

Tricky question, Lisa, because much depends upon how old you were when you started speaking! I avoided it at all costs in my twenties but don't mind it at all in my late forties - but then I went on a course in my mid-thirties and have delivered 700+ talks/speeches/workshops since plus stand up comedy gigs and teaching classes.

I saw when I taught adult education classes that my students ranged from teens to plenty of people in their forties, fifties, sixties...

Matthew Cornell said...

I totally understand this. While my own speaking has been roughly at the same comfort level, overall i'm bolder and less likely to care re other things in my life. I.e, I have a healthy "don't give a damn" attitude more than before. I don't sacrifice great content and presentations, though!

Edward said...

I don't know if it's that simple. I think it's really much more of a confidence/experience issue, and it's only natural that both of those should come with age & time. But not always...I remember MC'ing a beauty pageant (yeah, I know) when I was a junior or senior in high school and going from almost knock-kneed at the start to adlibbing schtick by the end (about 2 hours). Fast-forward several years when I was getting tasked to perform training with Navy personnel, and I was much more nervous and uncomfortable. Higher stakes? Maybe, but I also was really nervous about doing a half-hour of storytime to some preschoolers last year, even though now I'm fine speaking in TM or in a room full of trainees learning how to use a printer or whatever.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Nick, Matt, Edward -- thanks for kicking off the comments on this post.

There are so many factors that determine our comfort level with speaking, and age may be one of them.

I know that I'm far less concerned with what people think of me now than I was in my 20s or 30s. But then, I've always been inclined to put myself out there, so I don't know if I'm necessarily a good example.

Ms. Lucy said...

Hi. In some ways I think I'm a lot more comforable now in front of an audience, as opposed to when I was younger. But, I think when I was in my 20's I also thought I knew a lot more than I did...so, maybe perspective has a lot more to do with this than we think.

Dr. Jim Anderson said...

Ah, with age we so hope also comes wisdom. I don't really have any scientific evidence to support my position, but IMHO I think that Toastmasters might help answer your question Lisa.

The clubs that I've been a member of have had a fairly equal mix of young / old folks. I'm not sure if it's really physical age that reduces our speaking stress, but rather our life experiences.

Young folks with sheltered lives feel much more speaking stress. Older folks seem to be better able to compare speaking stress with other life events (childbirth?).

That being said, I've run into some VERY young folks who appear to have no speaking stress. Just makes me wonder - what kind of life have you lived so far?!!!


- Dr. Jim Anderson
The Accidental Communicator Blog
"Learn How To Calm Your Fears, Wow Your Audience, And Get Your Point Across"

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks Dr. Jim and Ms. Lucy! There are a lot of reasons that age might contribute to public speaking confidence, it seems!

Stacey Shipman said...

I have to agree with Dr. Anderson - it's not so much about age, but experience. I was 32 when I joined Toastmasters scared, shy and pretty adamant that public speaking would not be part of my career. 4 years later I lead with that as a service offering. For me it's more about practice, confidence and the ability to be myself. When I conformed to who I thought I should be I had more anxiety. Now I'm just me - take it or leave it - and my comfort level has increased tremendously as a result.

Chris Witt said...

I used to believe "I will die if X happens or if I do X while I'm speaking." X could be anything -- forgetting my next point, completely freezing up, realizing my pants are unzipped, tripping on the way up to the stage, etc.

Unfortunately, over the past several decades almost every X happened or (in the most elliptical passive voice I can manage) was made to happen by me.

I didn't die. (One of the fears, of course, was that I would have a heart attack at the podium and die...) So part of the confidence that I've earned over the years comes from having survived so many natural and self-incurred blunders, mishaps, and mistakes. I've got the confidence that no matter what happens (short of a fatal heart attack, mind you) I won't die.

And I agree with Jim. Like most people my age I've lived through many things that are much more momentous than anything that can happpen on stage.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, everyone!

Laura said...

At age 6, hardly anyone in my class was put off by "show and tell."

By age 14, almost everyone choked a little at giving oral book reports.

Somewhere 'twixt 12 and 20, public speaking seemed to cause my colleagues angst. Teenage self-consciousness, I reckon. Some folks carry it with them 'til middle age.

A few years ago, I watched my very self-confident mum, then 84, mumble and fidget when she was asked to speak in front of a small group. Afterward, I asked her what the heck the shy act was all about.

"I have no idea," said the former club president who routinely spoke before large groups.

"I felt like a teenager being called to the front of the class," she said. "Acting shy made me feel young again."

Full circle.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

What more is there to say than LOL?

rockingyoucuzican said...

To answer your question: I guess only in part. The reason is that people that suffer from public speaking anxiety do so due to negative references to episodes in the past and the following compulsive avoidance. With the combination of two you get an automatic adrenaline kick everytime you are called on to speak, no matter how old you are. It is only when you work on this adrenaline and turn in into a productive power that you will be able to speak with confidence. And if you haven't worked at it by the age of lets say 40, you will still get it when you're 40 -- even though you are "old". Trust me, comes from someone that knows..

rockingyoucuzican said...

Another point: Often public speaking anxiety goes hand in hand with social anxiety, which defenitly subsides with age but still doesn't really let go. This is an important pont to keep in mind for coaches/councelors that rarely see this dimension. Few of them really see and understand the severity of the problem simply because they apply their own understanding of what public speaking anxiety is. If that makes any sense.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

rockingyoucuzican, thanks for sharing. And awesome username!

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