Glossophobia is the technical term used to describe the fear of public speaking. Symptoms often include intense anxiety, nausea, sweating, shaking, and general physical distress (Khan et al. 2015). Surprisingly too many, according to most studies glossophobia, or speech anxiety, is considered the most commonly held fear, even ranking above death. Although not usually associated with glossophobia, I have found that the public expression of written work often evokes similar symptoms. Although by definition glossophobia is particular to speaking, writing shares a commonality in that it involves the public expression of one’s opinion or idea – the only difference is the medium of expression. Through a Darwinian lens, this fear may reflect and inherent desire to maintain control of ones ego and the concealment of perceived weakness. There is a dread in that through the act of public expression, ideas put forward become subject to the criticism and/or judgement of others. As identified by Becker (2007), for young scholars, such as high-school or undergraduate students, the pressure to produce high-quality written work may be less pronounced than that felt by comparatively mature scholars, such as graduate, doctoral or post-doctoral students. Although there are exceptions, young scholars may write about topics which they are not personally invested in for an audience, which may include professors or teaching assistants, which may share a similar disinterest in engaging with ones work. Alternatively, mature scholars write about topics that interest them for an audience, which may include colleagues, superiors, and peers, who are interested in the same topics and may possess equal or greater levels of knowledge. Awareness that the critical evaluation and judgement of ones written work may have a direct impact on their professional careers is a major contributing factor to the anxiety of public expression for many mature scholars.
Compared to my experience as a young scholar, as a new graduate student I have noticed an increase in anxiety which has clearly had a direct impact on my writing workflow. Possessing the knowledge that my written work is being critically examined by an audience whose opinions are vital to the success of my career, and by extension future, has undoubtedly affected my efficiency. Even as I write this blog post, I am acutely aware of the fact that every sentence I write, every idea I generate, and every opinion I present will be read by my colleagues and superiors. The knowledge of this this fact, and the anxiety that comes with it, limits my ability to think, freely and unobstructed. I find myself regularly obsessing over the intricacies of writing such as grammatical conventions, voice, fluidity, quality of evidence, and theory to the point that I lose sight of the big picture. This, as you might expect, is a key factor which contributes to periods of ‘writer’s block’ and performance issues regarding my writing workflow. I find this to be a particularly challenging when a large project or writing assignment requires my attention. As large assignments or projects are often heavily weighted, the mental pressure and anxiety of performing at an adequate level becomes compounded. In these situations the natural mental response is to ‘abandon ship’ at the first sign of distress and resort to procrastination to manage the stress. This, as you can imagine, tremendously slows down my writing workflow.
Although this post is not meant to provide instructions or guidelines on how to deal with the fear of public expression, I find that the natural conclusion is to address potential management strategies. Considering what I have written, it is crucial to identify that the root of the problem is mental. At times we may be concerned that our writing skills or knowledge do not meet particular standards (which may indeed be the case for some) but that more often than not this is a mental projection created by our anxiety and stress. We may think that our colleagues, superiors, and peers are out to critically destroy our work and reputations. Although there is often a degree of competitiveness, in my experience this is most certainly rarely the case. Often these people may be less interested in your work than you would like to know and when they do offer critique, it is constructive in nature. Learning to harness criticism can be an extremely powerful tool that can be realized by embracing a positive mental orientation. In terms of addressing the difficulties or completing large projects, I have found that that breaking them down into smaller manageable pieces reduces the mental load. Although this may be common knowledge, I find it to be one of the most effective strategies to improve my writing workflow. As with glossophobia, the act of publicly expressing written work is a common fear, so when in doubt remember that you are not alone.
I want to leave you with a quote from the song Little Acorns by The White Stripes which I was inspired to revisit while writing this post.
“When problems overwhelm us and sadness smothers us, where do we find the will and the courage to continue? Well, the answer may come in the caring voice of a friend, a chance encounter with a book, or from a personal faith. For Janet help came from her faith, but it also from a squirrel. Shortly after her divorce, Janet lost her father, then she lost her job. She had mounting money problems. But Janet not only survived, she worked her way out of despondency and now she says, life is good again. How could this happen? She told me that late one Autumn day when she was at her lowest she watched a squirrel storing up nuts for the winter, one at a time he would take them to the nest. And she thought, if that squirrel can take care of himself with the harsh winter coming along, then so can I. Once I broke my problems into small pieces I was able to carry them, just like those acorns, one at a time” (White 2003).
2007 Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article. Second Edition. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Khan, F., S. Ismail, M. S. Shafique, K. Ghous, and S. A. Ali
2015 Glossophobia Among Undergraduate Students of Government Medical Colleges in Karachi. International Journal of Research 2(1): 109–115.
2003 Little Acorns. On Elephant. London, EN: V2 Records.