Public Speaking Basics

“According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

— Jerry Seinfeld

Although we tend to think of public speaking as a formal speech or presentation, we also want to prepare students for different kinds of public speaking such as job interviews, speaking to a superior at work, or making a quick, off-the-cuff pitch at a meeting. In short, we want them to feel comfortable speaking out in many environments and situations. So, in our classes, we need to provide a supportive environment that reduces anxiety and includes instruction in the basics, formative feedback, and opportunities to practice.

Reducing Anxiety

If you want polished performances from your class, help students deal with anxiety.

Generate classroom camaraderie.

In order to minimize the discomfort level before and as students present, create an environment of trust and support. Get students talking and working together before, during, and after class, throughout the entire semester. Build their familiarity with one another so that when the time comes for them to present, they’ll be speaking in front of friendly faces, not intimidating strangers. This will ease their anxiety and allow them to focus instead on content.

Show the everyday utility of assignments and skills gained.

Students are more engaged in assignments when they are able to identify immediate personal value, benefit, or interest. Yet not all majors will immediately see the value of an oral presentation. It is your job to create a bridge—to show students the value of mastering oral presentations in relation to the course topic and to future careers. Provide students with ample, real-life examples and encourage them to generate their own value identifications. For example, upperclassmen might value mastering oral presentations given their upcoming job interviews. Find concrete ways to describe to students how they will communicate with their future clients, coworkers, and companies. They’ve all heard the general platitudes about good communications skills. But have they thought about sitting face-to-face with a patient, standing before a city council, or pitching their ideas in a board room?

Emphasize oral communication skills that students already have.

An easy way to assuage anxiety is to get students to realize that they already have many of the oral communication skills they’ll need to complete an assignment. Some students have likely already given presentations; they can reflect on those experiences and note successes, challenges, and opportunities for improvement. Others will be novice presenters; encourage them to recognize that they have at least 18 years of experience informing and persuading their friends, parents, and teachers.

Acknowledge that fear of public speaking is widespread and share your own tricks for dealing with it.

Visualization is a powerful tool for dealing with anxiety: ask students to visualize themselves on stage in front of an audience giving a successful performance. Help them imagine it all going well, so they can release some of their anxieties through imagination. A few tricks might also help. Remind them to have a glass of water available for dry mouth, to take deep breaths before starting, and to avoid a death grip on their notes or the podium. Also discuss comfortable and appropriate dress, and provide hints for dealing with difficult questions—how do you answer when you don’t know the answer; how do you stall for time to think; how do you deal with hostile questions? They often forget that it is OK to say you don’t know, and they don’t have practice in redirecting questions.

Build low-stakes preparation into the syllabus.

The most powerful way to reduce anxiety is solid preparation. Explain to students the importance of knowing as much as possible about their subject—they should prepare notes, of course, and they should definitely practice, but they should also know enough so that they can, when necessary, go off script. Give them time in class to work on the content of their presentations and to test their ideas with their peers.


Specify the types of speech you expect. 

The basic types of speeches are informative (gives the audience information such as how to do something or how something works), persuasive (attempts to move the audience to action or to change belief), and ceremonial (commemorates an event, a person, or an occasion). You can find examples of each type and use them to help students understand their content, organization, style, and structure.

Specify the criteria for a good speech.

You can hand students a rubric with criteria for a good speech, but they will apply these criteria, spend some time discussing and illustrating them. Discuss presentations students have seen in the past. What made a speaker more or less engaging or persuasive? Provide models of other presentations and discuss their effectiveness. You can find great speeches archived on the Web. Or, if you think your students will be intimidated by great orators, look for an online presentation that’s related to your field. Princeton, for example, has lectures available online. Or ask students to attend a lecture here on campus. In class, discuss the style of the presentation, as well as the content.

Explain the process of preparing a speech.

Writing a speech is still writing. Speech writers go through a composing process that includes prewriting and research, considering their audience, their message, the purpose or occasion for the speech (the rhetorical situation); they compose and arrange their thoughts, often with an outline, notes, or slides. Some of them actually write a complete speech word for word and then memorize it, while others work from the outline, but all of them practice until they have the speech ready for delivery. They also may prepare visual aids. Along the way, good speakers often seek feedback on their outlines, their practice sessions, or their visual aids.

Show samples of speeches, outlines, notes, and slides.

Do not limit yourself to showing sample presentations. Show how the writer/speaker prepared for the final delivery.

Practice, Then Practice Again

Practice will really help, even though some students may balk at the idea because they think it’s not needed or because they are anxious to avoid all performances. University Writing Center consultants will listen to a speech and provide formative feedback.

Build low-stakes practice into the syllabus

Low-stakes practice will build students’ mutual familiarity and trust, speaking confidence, and handle on course material. This may include in-class group work presented at the end of class, individual impromptu position statements, homework/reading synopses at the start of class, etc. The goal is to design activities that push students a step beyond simply raising their hands and responding or speaking from their desks. At the same time, the focus of the activities should not be on the public speaking itself; in this way, the students will gain comfort and experience speaking and presenting without feeling the anxiety of a high-stakes, graded assignment.

Use practice to help students plan for glitches.

Practice is the time to have audience members ask difficult questions so students can try out .some responses. It's the time to plan for bad technology that means your slides cannot be shown, or the time to strategize about how to deal with a sleepy audience. Students might want to think, too, about how to move around a room or deal with different spaces where they might be asked to give a speech.

Additional Resources

The Four Corners Debate: A Excerise in Public Speaking by Jennifer Jones Babour

Speaking in the Disciplines FAQs from the University of Pittsburgh's Speaking-in-the-Disciplines Program

6 Secrets of Bad Presentations (And How To Avoid Them)

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