‘Public opinion is no more than this: what people think that other people think.’ Alfred Austin, Poet Laureate.

Surveys – be they on issues of vital importance or profound triviality – are a seemingly endless source of intrigue: are you in or out of step with how others feel about the EU, do you hold the majority view on capital punishment or the favoured flavour of ice cream? Are your opinions reassuringly in line with others – or proudly independent? Does the rest of humanity shock you with their lack of taste and common sense, or have most other folk got it about right?

Following public opinion is a double-edged sword. Leaders who lean too heavily on focus groups are said to be wanting a clear ideology, while those who ignore public opinion are out of touch. Trying to strike a balance is a bit like keeping hold of a live salmon, especially when the answers you get can be self-evidently daft: in one survey, when asked to name ‘something made of wool’, the second most popular answer was ‘a sheep’.

What is the value of a survey, anyway? If they only tell us what we already knew, the results will only be published (if at all) under a sarky headline. When the results are surprising, we might need to do more to convince the reader that the figures haven’t been cooked. And sometimes the figures are dressed up to look more weighty than they are. Take this example from correlated.org: ‘In general, 42 percent of people would rather attend a small college than a big university. But among those who did not have their own room for most or all of their childhood, 64 percent would rather attend a small college than a big university.’

By the time you’ve mentally unpacked those sentences and worked out what they mean, you’re half way to thinking there might be something in the study. The research almost sounds significant. Until you think again, and realise that it really isn’t – that is assuming you’ve got enough time for the luxury of a second thought. Many statistics are presented at face value, and if you’ve ever heard two politicians debating, you will know that figures can be picked and chosen to agree with almost any point of view.

So, why are we launching a survey ourselves? Our survey aims to go beyond finding out that people are nervous about speaking in public and asking, ‘why are you nervous?’ One of the aims of our book, ‘Insider Secrets of Public Speaking’ is to help people overcome their fears with practical tools. Getting specific about the problem is, we think, the first step towards a solution. You can only take specific steps to tackle something when you know what it is: when you say ‘nerves’ do you mean ‘I don’t know what to do with my hands’?

You can help us to find out what it is about public speaking that people find frightening by going to our survey:

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/86S2NGJ

As a thank you, we’ll invite you to our book launch in September; just remember to give us your details at the end of the survey. And watch this space for the results – whatever they might be.

PS Programmes deliver presentation skills, TV and radio media training and crisis media management, tailored to the needs of our clients. This article appears on https://www.presentationskillsprogrammes.co.uk and http://www.nadinedereza.com/