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Worse than death: Students’ fear of public speaking and what you can do about it

In public speaking, debilitating fear is rare, but anxiety is common. In the 15 years I have been teaching public speaking, I have seen speakers start and restart a speech three, four, or even five times before completing the introduction. Another broke out in hives. Many have paced to and fro during their speech exhausted by the end. One student shook so badly that he could not read the speaking outline in his hand.

Most students can overcome their anxiety.  In all my years of teaching, I have had only two students unable to complete their speeches. Helping students manage their reticence numbers among the most important skills for the teacher of public speaking, and three strategies have proved particularly effective: setting up a safe and secure classroom dynamic, offering opportunities for students to practice public speaking without grade repercussions and acknowledging students’ anxiety.

Making the classroom a safe environment for speaking helps students confront their fears with the help of a community of peers.  If students feel like classmates will not support them or even worse feel like they might be ridiculed, they will struggle to overcome their anxiety. Instead, develop a sense of community in the classroom around the concept of the students as audience.

I remind my students that everyone in the room is nervous about giving presentations. That means that while presentations are happening the audience’s job is to engage in helpful not hurtful listening behaviors: Do not look down at the desk the whole time – or worse a cell phone, but do offer eye contact with the speaker along with positive nonverbal behaviors like smiling and nodding. In class exercises that help the students get to know each other can also help everyone feel part of a community.  Learning each other’s names is a powerful first step, and exercises can be focused throughout the class towards the students as an audience (e.g., questionnaires about demographics, inventories of values held by the audience).  Finally, I reward good audience behavior. A portion of each speaking grade depends on the speaker’s behavior as a member of the audience.

Providing opportunities for the students to practice public speaking ungraded goes a long way to making them feel more comfortable when the time comes for a group or individual presentation. For example, group impromptu presentations allow students to diffuse their anxiety by being part of a team. Changing group membership often means that students have to talk in front of a variety of classmates instead of those in the immediate vicinity of their seat. Class debates where students take sides on a controversial issue in the course material and then try and convince classmates to join their side with a vote at the end tempers fears about speaking by shifting their attention. Persuasion is the focus, and eloquence is a byproduct.

Encouraging students to practice outside the classroom is also important.  A key to practicing public speaking outside the classroom is to make sure there is an audience.  The University Writing Center has consultants who will work with individual students as well as groups on everything from the outline of a presentation, constructing the visual aids for a presentation, as well as delivery of a public presentation.

Acknowledging the anxiety helps students see that they are not the only ones who fear public presentations.  For example, students can take a self-diagnostic of their anxiety (one example is the Personal Report of Public Speaking Anxiety (PRPSA) available in Communication Apprehension, Avoidance and Effectiveness by Richmond and McCrosky available in the A&M library).  Discussions of the diagnostics can help students see how nervous everyone is as well as provide impetus for a discussion about strategies to overcome anxiety. I also ask students to tell me what a “good” speech looks like and then contextualize their answers. Students often name Martin Luther King Jr. as one of the best public speakers in history.  But students forget that King had a lot of practice giving speeches before he stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial to share his dream for America.  These conversations are also an opportunity to talk about future professional expectations for public communication – a presentation to a business client is different from a rousing political address. Students shift their thinking about effectiveness by understanding that context influences what makes a public presentation successful.

Speaking in public well is a skill that can set students apart in college and in life.  Although helping students overcome the anxiety that comes along with those presentations can be hard work, the results are worth it. Mastering the anxiety that most of us feel when speaking is a lesson that can last.

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