Chapter 2. The attack of the butterflies

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"The best speakers know enough to be scared…the only difference between the pros and the novices is that the pros have trained the butterflies to fly in formation.”

—Edward R. Murrow

While there are good reasons why people fear public speaking, until I see someone flee from the lectern mid-presentation, running for his life through the fire exit on stage left, we can’t say public speaking is scarier than death. This oddly popular factoid, commonly stated as, “Did you know people would rather die than speak in public?”, is a classic case of why you should ask people how they know what they think they know. This “fact” implies that people will, if given the chance, choose to jump off buildings or swallow cyanide capsules rather than give a short presentation to their coworkers. Since this doesn’t happen in the real world—no suicide note has ever mentioned an upcoming presentation as the reason for leaving this world—it’s worth asking: where does this factoid come from?

The source is The Book of Lists by David Wallechinksy et al. (William Morrow), a trivia book first published in 1977. It included a list of things people are afraid of, and public speaking came in at number one. Here’s the list, titled “The Worst Human Fears”:

  1. Speaking before a group

  2. Heights

  3. Insects and bugs

  4. Financial problems

  5. Deep water

  6. Sickness

  7. Death

  8. Flying

  9. Loneliness

  10. Dogs

  11. Driving/Riding ...

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