Public Speaking Anxiety

Admittedly, thinking about advocacy or advocating for ideas can sound intimidating. Even experienced professors can feel anxiety before teaching. To advocate or present information to an audience – some more willing to listen actively than others – is a big responsibility. Understandably, this can lead speakers to experiencing apprehension while preparing and delivering a presentation. In this section, we explore public speaking apprehension while providing some useful tips to manage anxiety.

Public speaking apprehension is fear associated with giving a public speech. This could occur prior to or during a presentation. It’s common to hear that public speaking is a fear, but why are so many people fearful to speak in public?

The first is fear of failure. This fear can result from several sources: real or perceived bad experiences involving public speaking in the past, lack of preparation, lack of knowledge about public speaking, not knowing the context, and uncertainty about one’s task as a public speaker (such as being thrown into a situation at the last minute).

The second fear is fear of rejection of one’s self or one’s ideas. This one is more serious in some respects. You may feel rejection because of fear of failure, or you may feel that the audience will reject your ideas, or worse, you as a person.

Scholars at the University of Wisconsin-Stout (“Public Speaking Anxiety,” 2015) explain that fear in public speaking can also result from one of several misperceptions:

  • “all or nothing” thinking—a mindset that if your speech falls short of “perfection” (an unrealistic standard), then you are a failure as a public speaker;
  • overgeneralization—believing that a single event (such as failing at a task) is a universal or “always” event; and
  • fortune telling—the tendency to anticipate that things will turn out badly, no matter how much practice or rehearsal is done.

One common belief that undergirds our fear is that we often hold ourselves to “expert-level” standards. We learn that audience members look for proof of our credibility, and new public speakers may wonder, “why am I credible?” or “why should someone listen to me?” At the beginning of this chapter, we asked that you imagine your favourite public speaker, and they may have years of experience speaking in public. While it’s important to view these speakers as informal mentors, it can also incite some anxiety. “Am I supposed to speak like them?” you may be wondering.

Likewise, many new college students operate under the false belief that intelligence and skill are “fixed.” In their minds, a person is either smart or skilled in something, or they are not. Some students apply this false belief to math and science subjects, saying things like “I’m just no good at math and I never will be,” or even worse, “I guess I am just not smart enough to be in college.” As you can tell, these beliefs can sabotage someone’s college career. Unfortunately, the same kind of false beliefs are applied to public speaking, and people conclude that because public speaking is hard, they are just not “natural” at it and have no inborn skill. They give up on improving and avoid public speaking at all costs. The classroom is a cool space to begin building some foundational knowledge around public speaking. Remember that you are building a critical thinking portfolio, so have patience with yourself and trust the educational process.

Finally, we often experience students believing the incongruent ideas that public speaking (as a class) should be an “easy A” and that they’d rather die than give a speech. Instead, remember that good public speaking takes time and energy because it is difficult. Public speaking asks you to engage and advocate on behalf of yourselves and others who may not be able to access spaces to advocate for themselves.

Public speaking is also embodied: it requires the activation of and communication through your entire body. Unlike writing an essay or posting a picture online, public speaking requires that your entire body deliver a message, and that can feel odd for many of us. Consequently, learning public speaking means you must train your body to be comfortable and move in predictable and effective ways. This all happens in front of other people: scary! This is difficult work, so of course it’s viewed as fear-inducing for some.

Addressing Public Speaking Anxiety

We wish that we had a “Felix can fix it!” (from Wreck-It Ralph) mentality toward public speaking apprehension. If you have experienced some anxiety around speaking, you know that it can be merely aggravating or completely overwhelming. In this section, we provide some guidance and strategies to address public speaking apprehension.

Mental Preparation

Mental preparation is an important part of public speaking. To mentally prepare, you want to put your focus where it belongs, on the audience and the message. Mindfulness and full attention to the task are vital to successful public speaking. If you are concerned about a big exam or something personal going on in your life, your mind will be divided and add to your stress.

The main questions to ask yourself are “Why am I so anxiety-ridden about giving a presentation?” and “What is the worst that can happen?” For example, you probably won’t know most of your classmates at the beginning of the course, adding to your anxiety. By midterm, you should be developing relationships with them and be able to find friendly faces in the audience. However, very often we make situations far worse in our minds than they actually are, and we can lose perspective.

Physical Preparation

The first step in physical preparation is adequate sleep and rest. You might be thinking, “Impossible! I’m in college.” However, research shows the extreme effects a lifestyle of limited sleep can have, far beyond yawning or dozing off in class (Mitru, Millrood, & Mateika, 2002). As far as public speaking is concerned, your energy level and ability to be alert and aware during the speech will be affected by lack of sleep.

Secondly, eat! Food is fuel, so making sure that you have a nutritious meal is a plus.

A third suggestion is to select what you’ll wear before the day you speak. Have your outfit picked out and ready to go, eliminating something to worry your mind the day-of.

A final suggestion for physical preparation is to utilize some stretching or relaxation techniques that will loosen your limbs or throat. Essentially, your emotions want you to run away but the social system says you must stay, so all that energy for running must go somewhere. The energy might go to your legs, hands, stomach, sweat glands, or skin, with undesirable physical consequences. Tightening and stretching your hands, arms, legs, and throat for a few seconds before speaking can help release some of the tension. Your instructor may be able to help you with these exercises, or you can find some online.

Contextual Preparation

The more you can know about the venue where you will be speaking, the better. For this class, of course, it will be your classroom, but for other situations where you might experience “communication apprehension,” you should check out the space beforehand or get as much information as possible. For example, if you were required to give a short talk for a job interview, you would want to know what the room will be like, if there is equipment for projection, how large the audience will be, and the seating arrangements. If possible, you will want to practice your presentation in a room that is similar to the actual space where you will deliver it.

The best advice for contextual preparation is to be on time, even early. If you have to rush in at the last minute, as so many students do, you will not be mindful, focused, or calm for the speech.

Speech Preparation

Please, please, please, rehearse. You do not want the first time that you say the words to be when you are in front of your audience. Practicing is the only way that you will feel confident, fluent, and in control of the words you speak. Practicing (and timing yourself) repeatedly is also the only way that you will be assured that your speech meets the requirements of the context (length, for example).

Your practicing should be out loud, standing up, with shoes on, with someone to listen, if possible (other than your dog or cat), and with your visual aids. If you can record yourself and watch it, that is even better. If you do record yourself, make sure you record yourself from the feet up—or at least the hips up—so you can see your body language. The need for oral practice will be emphasized over and over in this book and probably by your instructor. As you progress as a speaker, you will always need to practice but perhaps not to the extent you do as a novice speaker.

As hard as it is to believe, YOU NEVER LOOK AS NERVOUS AS YOU FEEL.

You may feel that your anxiety is at level seventeen on a scale of one to ten, but the audience does not perceive it the same way. They may perceive it at a three or four or even less. That’s not to say they won’t see any signs of your anxiety and that you don’t want to learn to control it, only that what you are feeling inside is not as visible as you might think. This principle relates back to focus. If you know you don’t look as nervous as you feel, you can focus and be mindful of the message and audience rather than your own emotions.

Providing Support in the Audience: As an audience member: there are ways to provide supportive feedback to speakers who may be anxious. You can use positive non-verbals to encourage them as they speak, ask thoughtful questions at the conclusion of the presentation, or listen attentively.


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Business Writing For Everyone Copyright © 2021 by Arley Cruthers is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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