Failure is part of life. But it’s especially scary when we talk about it in the context of public speaking because that failure happens in front of an audience.

It’s that fear of embarrassing ourselves in public that keeps so many of us from even trying. But what if we could understand the ways we may be sabotaging ourselves and using fear of failure as an excuse for not trying? What if we stared failure straight in the eyes until it backed down?

Are you ready? Let’s challenge our fear of failure and clear the path to public speaking success.

Attribution Theory

In 1973, Harold K. Kelley published research following in the footsteps of Fritz Heider showing that humans usually point to three things that cause their failure. His covariation model became part of what is called attribution theory. To put it simply, an attribution is how we explain what caused an event or a behavior. Kelley says, when we fail, we tend to blame it on either the person, the entity, or the circumstances.

In his work, The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games, Jesper Juul explains attribution theory with this clear example: “If we receive a low grade on a school test, we can decide that this was due to (1) person — personal disposition such as lack of skill, (2) entity — an unfair test, or (3) circumstance — having slept badly or having not studied enough.”

Let’s look at how each of these perceived causes of failure relate to our fears about speaking in public.


Person attributions blame failure on stable personal factors, such as lack of a certain skillset or personality trait. If we fear public speaking, it may be because we think we lack the skills needed to deliver a great presentation.

Don’t worry though, because neuroscience is on our side here. We now have countless studies proving the plasticity and adaptability of our brains when it comes to learning new skills. One such study showed that it took only 3 months for noticeable changes in brain structure to appear in adults who were learning to juggle. This concept of neuroplasticity reminds us that person attributions might not be as stable as we think they are. Public speaking is like any skill. It can be taught. It can be learned. And every single person who works at it can get better at public speaking. That includes you and me.


Entity attributions blame failure on stable factors surrounding the object at hand. In a public speaking situation, this would be the speech itself. If you’ve given a presentation and said “the presentation just fell flat” or “my speech bombed,” you’ve used an entity attribution.

This type of thinking denies that the speaker has the ability to change the presentation. But this is a misperception. Presentations aren’t stable entities. They can be changed. Your presentation doesn’t have to be delivered exactly the way you rehearsed it. It’s not set in stone. So if you fear public speaking because you think your presentation might fall flat or bomb, remember that it is a changeable entity that you have control over.


Circumstantial attributions are seen as unstable factors outside of the person or the entity that are the cause of the failure. It could be that you feel you have the skills needed to be a great public speaker and you are confident in your ability to develop a great presentation. However, you are afraid of failing because of things that are beyond your control.

Some of the toughest types of failures are those that feel outside of our control. And the truth is, you can’t control everything about every presentation. But you can prepare. If you are waiting until you have complete control to give that speech, you’ll be waiting forever. Sure, there will be instances where something goes wrong. But there will be many, many more where everything goes right.

We did it. We looked fear of failure dead on. And we survived.

Here’s the deal. We all fail sometimes. And we fail for different reasons at different times. But we also have the ability to examine the causes of that failure and adapt to avoid them the next time. We have the ability to triumph. But only if we try.

Ready to try and triumph? Get in touch with a presentation coach today.


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