Studies estimate that seventy-five percent of us have some form of glossophobia. This is the fear of public speaking. It comes from the Greek words "glossa," meaning tongue, and "phobia," meaning fear. It is such a common phenomenon that comedian Jerry Seinfeld jokes, "If you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy."
Believe it or not, some of history's greatest leaders have struggled with glossophobia. Mahatma Gandhi, who led India's independence movement, admitted, "My vision became blurred and I trembled, though the speech hardly covered a sheet of foolscap." Thomas Jefferson was plagued by the same fear. He only gave two speeches as president, both being inaugural addresses and thus compulsory.
"We are not born shy or fearful," writes Stephen Outram, author of Public Speaking: Beyond Fear.
"These behaviors are learnt and something that we accept, without question, as the right thing to do. As we get older, we forget what was blindly accepted, but the effect of it remains and influences our lives. The good news is that anything can be changed, when you become aware of it."
Schools have tried to combat this fear by making speech classes compulsory. Toastmasters, too, is a great tool. The best way to overcome the fear of public speaking is to practice. Yet for many, public speaking remains an insurmountable challenge. "In Toastmasters, I gained tools and experience that helped me to manage my fears, but those fears did not go away or become less intense," recalls Outram.
Although how we say something remains more vivid - more important? - than what we actually say, language is a key component of public speaking. Unfortunately, our understanding of both ourselves and of language is often too limited to precisely convey what we want to say - especially when under pressure.
Every speech in human history has been subject to some form of misinterpretation; some, more than others. As celebrated in the old campfire game of "telephone," this is not always the fault of the speaker. However, of two things there can be no doubt:
First, the more comprehensively a speaker understands a language, the better they are able to use it to deliver their message accurately and memorably.
Second, studying a foreign language - its vocabulary, structure, and diction - can dramatically improve the student's understanding of the intricacies of their native language, and thus their confidence in conveying their message.