“A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.”
Winston Churchill (1874-1965), ex UK Prime Minister

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

As someone who has planned some of their retirement based on a late onset career as a public speaker, I have always welcomed the almost universal fear of public speaking.

This widespread dread of having to stand on a stage to share one’s thoughts and ideas with an audience of strangers did help to limit my competition for speaker slots, though I was also helped and kept busy in my speaking endeavours by the fact that many speakers still tend to believe that a great speech is made greater by the use of a large number of PowerPoint slides (see “How to give a great speech” posted 21 March, 2011 and “How to really give a great speech” posted 24 March, 2011).

However, most recently, the fear of public speaking, which has long held the #1 position in “human feardom” in the western world, appears to have been deposed, and relegated further down the list of top-10 fears, according to most current surveys that bother to worry about what bothers humanity.

It now seems that due to ageing populations in the western world, the number one fear these days has become the actual fear of ageing, closely now followed by the fear of death.

Author: GregRShaw (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: GregRShaw (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

I recently had to visit the ophthalmologist due to small flashes happening in my left eye. After extensive testing he told me that it would go away and that there was nothing that he needed to do, or even could do, as it was just part of the ageing process. I told him that this was a bit worrying as at age 68 this was the first real sign that I had had that I was getting old. My wife, who was with me at the time, quickly quipped that it was “obvious that I hadn’t looked in a mirror recently”.

Andy Rooney said “It’s paradoxical that the idea of living a long life appeals to everyone, but the idea of getting old doesn’t appeal to anyone.”

Since this warning shot across my bows, I have thought long and hard about the whole question of ageing, and realised that this “fear of ageing” is too broad a category, and that it really needs to be dissected into some of its more specific components as follows:

Fear of having an incurable disease with the family sitting on vulture-watch with their fingers on the life support switch.

Fear of forgetting where you live and thus having to wander the earth like David Carradine in his role as a warrior monk, but without the benefit of being a Kung Fu master.

Fear of moving more than 100 metres from a restroom, in case your brain registers that you only have 10 seconds before needing to desperately use one.

Fear of falling and thus actually testing the 20 year guarantee that comes with an artificial hip.

Fear of forgetting where you parked the car, and so having to search all the levels, or the vast acreage, of the shopping mall, having anyway completely forgotten what it was that you actually came to buy in the first place.

Author: Gloumouth1, http://gloumouth1.free.fr; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Gloumouth1, http://gloumouth1.free.fr; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Fear of forgetting people’s names and then having to call everyone “Bud” in the USA, “Comrade” in Cuba and France, or “Cobber” in Australia and “mate” in New Zealand.

Fear of having to drive at high speed, thereby keeping you off all motorways and ensuring that you clog up all the small roads through villages in the French (or any other nation’s) countryside.

Fear of the elastic breaking on your “sansabelt” trousers and hence rendering you immobile and incapable of any forward motion.

Fear that one your children will get divorced, or find some other reason to have to come and live with you.

Fear that you will forget any/all of the pin numbers that you have accumulated over the decades making access to your bank, and simple electronic mail accounts totally impossible.

The fear of death, which has resolutely sat in the second slot for a long time, continues to do so, no doubt also helped by steadily ageing populations, though many attribute this to the fear of what is unknown rather to a fear of death itself. However, as so well put by Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics “Dying is easy, it’s living that scares me to death”.

Author: nemahziz; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: nemahziz; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

As well as fear of ageing and the fear of death, the fear of failure has now moved ahead of the fear of public speaking into the third position on the feardom ladder, relegating the fear of public speaking into the fourth slot. Sadly this particular fear is instilled into children at an early age, when they are taught that to be right is more important than to be different, and that to succeed is more important than to have a good try, and this is even more pronounced in the business world. (see “Every company needs people who can regularly fail” posted 27 May, 2013).

“In the world today, failure is not an option. We need to change this attitude toward failure – and celebrate the idea that only by falling on our faces do we learn enough to succeed ”. Naveen Jain, business executive and entrepreneur.

I am pleased that the fear of public speaking, which is something that can be overcome with practice and coaching, has lost its position at the top of the fear table, as I have never really understood why it was ever accorded this ranking in the first place. I can also understand why ageing and death have moved up in the rankings though these are inevitable for all of us, so we may just get on with living life for as long as we have it.

I do however worry about the growth in the number of people who are scared to fail, as that will have an impact on people being prepared to try new things, which is one of the things that makes the whole journey of life so worthwhile in the first place.



  1. Paul Kurchina says:

    Great post

  2. cnxtim says:

    Two 100% true anecdotes on the subject;
    Gary Jackson an old mate of mine, ex Prime, Microsoft and some other big IT companies in the Asian region, used to take a dirty big bag of Minties with him on stage, and God forbid, if the audience showed signs of flagging, he would simply chuck handfuls in to the crowd – it worked a treat.

    And another incident, when a particularly boring presenter had gone waay over the allocated time, he snapped to and said the to audience “I am so sorry, I forget my watch and appear to have gone past my time”.

    Some wag for the audience called out, “What’s your problem?, There is a perfectly good calendar on the wall behind you”…. boom boom!

    • leshayman says:

      Tim, I can’t imagine that Gary would have needed the Minties … in his “prime” no one would have dared to doze off when he was speaking ? Les

  3. Frank says:

    Hi Les, an excellent & timely topic before Max’s Luncheon in November. I can report Gary spoke at Max’s a couple of years ago, and didn’t need his Minties.
    Your list of fears are scary, as some have come to mind (when I think of my parents of course).

    I only fear public speaking when I am asked to talk about a subject not “close to my heart” (and hence flows easily & from the heart). If I feel fear, I usually decline the speaking opportunity, unless I feel the need to defeat the fear of fear.

    rgds, Frank

  4. Scott says:

    I’m appalled Les i can’t believe your wife would say such a callous thing
    Regards Scott

  5. John Du Bois says:

    Well Les I agree with Churchill and your comments re powerpoint. “Death by Power Point” still survives and it where in my opinion, the content is mostly light.

    I had the same challenge you had when I saw, also from my left eye, what looked like spider webs floating with spome black dots. Its PVU ( floaters) and yes it ageing and I had never thought I was “old” but it disturbed me, until I looked in the mirror.

    There are few persons who can stand up and talk about seemingly little and make it interesting and entertaining and engaging. Maybe its just me and I am getting old and I have been fortunate in my life time to see some of the “best”. Thank You.

    • leshayman says:

      Hi JD,
      I guess we were all guilty of adding to PPT poisoning in the early days as it was such an improvement over using plastic foils and overhead projectors.
      I started hating PPT when I realised that most speakers spent significantly more time on creating their PPTs than they did on preparing what they were going to say, resulting in poor speeches despite the beautiful pictures. Les

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