Do People Really Fear Public Speaking More Than Death?

Jun 25

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.Jerry Seinfeld

This quotation appears around the Internet in many slight variations. I have heard it quoted and misquoted by new Toastmasters more times than I can count, never mind all the public speaking articles and websites it appears in, each one thinking they’ve stumbled across something novel and unique.

The problem is more than this simply being a cliché. It’s not terribly accurate. What do we mean when we say that people fear public speaking “more” than death? That given the choice, people would rather be put to death than give a speech? That seems unlikely.

Although I have not seen the original source myself, the consensus seems to be that Seinfeld’s joke was based on a study from the 1977 “Book of Lists.” Here is the actual content, as per the discussion on the

The 14 Worst Human Fears
“What are you most afraid of?” a team of market researchers asked 3000
U.S. inhabitants. Many named more than one fear. The results may
surprise you.]

Biggest Fear % naming

1 Speaking before a group 41
2 Heights 32
3 Insects and bugs 22
3 Financial Problems 22
3 Deep water 22
6 Sickness 19
6 Death 19
8 Flying 18
9 Loneliness 14
10 Dogs 11
11 Driving/riding in a car 9
12 Darkness 8
12 Elevators 8
14 Escalators 5

This is a completely different matter from how the quote is usually used. People simply were asked for some fears off the top of their head, and more of them happened to mention public speaking than death. This would seem to imply that it’s something that’s more presently pressing on people’s minds; someone may be fretting about the presentation they have to give at work next week, but they may not really think about death until something happens to remind them of mortality.

In other words, people may actively be fearing public speaking more frequently than they actively fear death, but their fear of public speaking is certainly not stronger than their fear of death.

If you’re giving one of your first speeches, remember–don’t apologize, don’t state how nervous you are and don’t include irrelevant material (such as a quotation about fear of public speaking). If you’re a more experienced speaker trying to make a point about how people need to learn public speaking skills, then a personal story will be more powerful than this quotation.


  1. Yes, Seinfeld used comic logic to make a statistic funny and changed it from more people fear to people fear more. The Seinfeld version was on the TV show in 1993 and also appears on Track 14 of the 1998 HBO DVD Jerry Seinfeld Live on Broadway (I’m telling you for the last time”).

    I’ve blogged about where the survey mentioned in the 1977 Book of Lists really came from – it was a Bruskin survey done in 1973:

    There also was another Bruskin-Goldring survey in 1993:

    Brian Tracy’s also been spreading a new ManBearBig version that: “According to the book of lists, 54 percent of adults rate the fear of public speaking ahead of the fear of death” in a couple of his books:

    Some people (e.g. reticent college students) really do fear public speaking more than death. McCroskey mentioned this in 2009:

  2. Dave Empire /

    Chad there are some great statistics here! It’s no surprise that more people far speaking in front of a group than anything else… probably because they haven’t had much practice or experience with it.

  3. DaveC /

    The survey asked 1,500 people nationwide about fears and concerns across different categories, including manmade fears (like a terrorist attack), the government, natural disasters and personal fears (like Internet safety and public speaking).

    Top 5 personal fears:
    1. Walking alone at night
    2. Becoming the victim of identity theft
    3. Safety on the Internet
    4. Being the victim of a mass/random shooting
    5. Public speaking

    • Thanks, Dave! It’s great to have newer data!
      Although, of course, the same point stands—there’s a big difference between what people fear/worry about most frequently, as opposed to what they think is a worse fate!


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