What Causes Communication Apprehension?

Learning Objectives

Explain what causes communication apprehension.

When someone is afraid of riding a bike, it is not necessarily the riding itself, but instead the fear of falling or veering into traffic that causes anxiety. Similarly, CA does not stem from giving an actual speech, but rather the associations one makes with giving a speech.  Although public speaking is one of the most commonly feared situations by the general population, not everyone fears it for the same reason.[1] The main causes of CA can be fear of failure, the audience, high stakes, and being the center of attention.

Fear of Failure

Speakers with a fear of failure often imagine themselves forgetting a part of their speech or performing poorly. This fear manifests in the following ways:

  1. They may feel as though they haven’t prepared enough.
  2. They use self-fulfilling prophecies predicting that they will fail. Such as:
    “I can never get that right.”
    “I’m a terrible speaker.”
    “This is going to go badly.”
  3. They’ve had a negative prior experience giving a speech and believe that it will be repeated.


An empty podium at an executive luncheonSpeakers may feel intimidated by their audience because they see themselves as less qualified, less knowledgeable, or less accomplished than them.

  • As Naveen begins his presentation at work in front of high-level executives, he experiences an overwhelming fear of being unable to answer their questions or that their knowledge may contradict his own.

Even without feeling inferior, simply feeling different from your audience can lead to anxiety.

  • Alejandra has been unable to find much common ground with her audience, and she is worried that they will turn against her, become uninterested, or judge her poorly.

High Stakes

Some speakers who feel fine when practicing their speech become very nervous in anticipation of the actual event. For some, the high stakes are situational, such as knowing that a promotion, a big opportunity, or passing a class needed to graduate is on the line. For others, suffering from perfectionism can create overwhelming pressure to perform.


A person struggling to connect a computer to a projector

Audio-Visual connections can be a major source of uncertainty in a presentation. Make sure to check the connections early!

Since giving a speech is a live event, there is a degree of unpredictability. A speaker with very little experience may not know what to expect or how they may respond to the situation. Experienced speakers, though, can also fear uncertainty. Regardless of how much one prepares and practices, there is no way to guarantee that everything will go exactly as planned. Between the audience, technology, environment, and even one’s own performance, there are always elements of uncertainty in any speaking situation.

Being the Center of Attention

Excessive self-focus can make the thought of anyone, let alone everyone, staring at us or waiting to hear what we have to say intimidating.

Rather than focusing on the message, Rachel believes the audience is more concerned about how she sounds, what she looks like, or any mistake she might make, which leads her to obsess about those things.

The speaker may also suffer from low self-esteem, in which they only believe negative things about themselves and feel unworthy of the attention from the audience.

Try It

  1. Ebrahimi, Omid V., et al. “Psychological Interventions for the Fear of Public Speaking: A Meta-Analysis.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 19 Feb. 2019, http://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00488/full.