10.1 Managing Public Speaking Anxiety
- Discuss common sources of public speaking anxiety.
- Identify strategies for addressing public speaking anxiety.
- Employ strategies for addressing public speaking anxiety.
If you feel fear, anxiety, or discomfort when confronted with the task of speaking in front of an audience, you are not alone. National polls consistently show that public speaking is among Americans’ top fears (Bodie, 2010). Yet, since we all have to engage in some form of public speaking, this is a fear that many people must face regularly. Effectively managing speaking anxiety has many positive effects on your speech. One major area that can improve with less anxiety is delivery. Although speaking anxiety is natural and normal, it can interfere with verbal and nonverbal delivery, which makes a speech less effective. In this chapter, we will explore causes of speaking anxiety, ways to address it, and best practices of vocal and physical delivery.
Sources of Speaking Anxiety
Aside from the self-reported data in national surveys that rank the fear of public speaking high for Americans, decades of research conducted by communication scholars shows that communication apprehension is common among college students (Priem & Solomon, 2009). Communication apprehension (CA) is fear or anxiety experienced by a person due to real or perceived communication with another person or persons. CA is a more general term that includes multiple forms of communication, not just public speaking. CA can be further broken down into two categories. Trait CA refers to a general tendency to experience anxiety related to communication, in essence incorporating it into a person’s personality. State CA refers to anxiety related to communication that occurs in a particular situation and time (Bodie, 2010). Of college students, 15 to 20 percent experience high trait CA, meaning they are generally anxious about communication. Seventy percent of college students experience some trait CA, which means that addressing communication anxiety in a class like the one you’re taking now stands to benefit the majority of students (Priem & Solomon, 2009). Whether CA is a personal trait or not, we all occasionally experience state CA. Think about the jitters you get before a first date, a job interview, or the first day of school. The novelty or uncertainty of some situations is a common trigger for communication anxiety, and public speaking is a situation that is novel and uncertain for many.
Public speaking anxiety is a type of CA that produces physiological, cognitive, and behavioral reactions in people when faced with a real or imagined presentation (Bodie, 2010). Physiological responses to public speaking anxiety include increased heart rate, flushing of the skin or face, and sweaty palms, among other things. These reactions are the result of natural chemical processes in the human body. The fight or flight instinct helped early humans survive threatening situations. When faced with a ferocious saber-toothed tiger, for example, the body released adrenaline, cortisol, and other hormones that increased heart rate and blood pressure to get more energy to the brain, organs, and muscles in order to respond to the threat. We can be thankful for this evolutionary advantage, but our physiology hasn’t caught up with our new ways of life. Our body doesn’t distinguish between the causes of stressful situations, so facing down an audience releases the same hormones as facing down a wild beast. The root of public speaking anxiety is the fight or flight instinct that is triggered when we face a fear. While we can’t completely eliminate anxiety, we can change how we cognitively process it.
Cognitive reactions to public speaking anxiety often include intrusive thoughts that can increase anxiety: “People are judging me,” “I’m not going to do well,” and “I’m going to forget what to say.” These thoughts are reactions to the physiological changes in the body but also bring in the social/public aspect of public speaking in which speakers fear being negatively judged or evaluated because of their anxiety. The physiological and cognitive responses to anxiety lead to behavioral changes. All these thoughts may lead someone to stop their speech and return to their seat or leave the classroom. Anticipating these reactions can also lead to avoidance behavior where people intentionally avoid situations where they will have to speak in public.
Addressing Public Speaking Anxiety
While we can’t stop the innate physiological reactions related to anxiety from occurring, we do have some control over how we cognitively process them and the behaviors that result. Research on public speaking anxiety has focused on three key ways to address this common issue: systematic desensitization, cognitive restructuring, and skills training (Bodie, 2010). In addition, it is important to address the physical manifestations of speaking anxiety.
Although systematic desensitization may sound like something that would be done to you while strapped down in the basement of a scary hospital, it actually refers to the fact that we become less anxious about something when we are exposed to it more often (Bodie, 2010). As was mentioned earlier, the novelty and uncertainty of public speaking is a source for many people’s anxiety. So becoming more familiar with public speaking by doing it more often can logically reduce the novelty and uncertainty of it.
Systematic desensitization can result from imagined or real exposure to anxiety-inducing scenarios. In some cases, an instructor leads a person through a series of relaxation techniques. Once relaxed, the person is asked to imagine a series of scenarios including speech preparation and speech delivery. This is something you could also try to do on your own before giving a speech. Imagine yourself going through the process of preparing and practicing a speech, then delivering the speech, then returning to your seat, which concludes the scenario. Aside from this imagined exposure to speaking situations, taking a communication course like this one is a great way to directly engage in systematic desensitization. Almost all my students report that they have less speaking anxiety at the end of a semester than when they started, which is at least partially due to the fact they were forced to engage with speaking more than they would have done if they weren’t taking the class.
Cognitive restructuring entails changing the way we think about something. A first step in restructuring how we deal with public speaking anxiety is to cognitively process through our fears to realize that many of the thoughts associated with public speaking anxiety are irrational (Allen, Hunter & Donohue, 2009). For example, people report a fear of public speaking over a fear of snakes, heights, financial ruin, or even death. It’s irrational to think that the consequences of giving a speech in public are more dire than getting bit by a rattlesnake, falling off a building, or dying. People also fear being embarrassed because they mess up or are evaluated negatively. Well, you can’t literally die from embarrassment, and in reality, audiences are very forgiving and overlook or don’t even notice many errors that we, as speakers, may dwell on. Once we realize that the potential negative consequences of giving a speech are not as dire as we think they are, we can move on to other cognitive restructuring strategies. Communication-orientation modification therapy (COM therapy) is a type of cognitive restructuring that encourages people to think of public speaking as a conversation rather than a performance (Motley, 2009). Many people have a performance-based view of public speaking. This can easily be seen in the language that some students use to discuss public speaking. They say that they “rehearse” their speech, deal with “stage fright,” then “perform” their speech on a “stage.” I like to remind my students that there is no stage at the front of our classroom; it is a normal floor. To get away from a performance orientation, we can reword the previous statements to say that they “practice” their speech, deal with “public speaking anxiety,” then “deliver” their speech from the front of the room. Viewing public speaking as a conversation also helps with confidence. After all, you obviously have some conversation skills, or you wouldn’t have made it to college. We engage in conversations every day. We don’t have to write everything we’re going to say out on a note card, we don’t usually get nervous or anxious in regular conversations, and we’re usually successful when we try. Even though we don’t engage in public speaking as much, we speak to others in public all the time. Thinking of public speaking as a type of conversation helps you realize that you already have accumulated experiences and skills that you can draw from, so you aren’t starting from scratch.
Thinking of public speaking as a conversation with an audience rather than a performance for an audience can help reduce speaking anxiety.
Last, positive visualization is another way to engage in cognitive restructuring. Speaking anxiety often leads people to view public speaking negatively. They are more likely to judge a speech they gave negatively, even if it was good. They’re also likely to set up negative self-fulfilling prophecies that will hinder their performance in future speeches. To effectively use positive visualization, it’s best to engage first in some relaxation exercises such as deep breathing or stretching, which we will discuss more later, and then play through vivid images in your mind of giving a successful speech. This should be done a few times before giving the actual speech. Students sometimes question the power of positive visualization, thinking that it sounds corny. Ask an Olympic diver what his or her coach says to do before jumping off the diving board and the answer will probably be “Coach says to image completing a perfect 10 dive.” Likewise a Marine sharpshooter would likely say his commanding officer says to imagine hitting the target before pulling the trigger. In both instances, positive visualization is being used in high-stakes situations. If it’s good enough for Olympic athletes and snipers, it’s good enough for public speakers.
Skills training is a strategy for managing public speaking anxiety that focuses on learning skills that will improve specific speaking behaviors. These skills may relate to any part of the speech-making process, including topic selection, research and organization, delivery, and self-evaluation. Skills training, like systematic desensitization, makes the public speaking process more familiar for a speaker, which lessens uncertainty. In addition, targeting specific areas and then improving on them builds more confidence, which can in turn lead to more improvement. Feedback is important to initiate and maintain this positive cycle of improvement. You can use the constructive criticism that you get from your instructor and peers in this class to target specific areas of improvement. Self- evaluation is also an important part of skills training. Make sure to evaluate yourself within the context of your assignment or job and the expectations for the speech. Don’t get sidetracked by a small delivery error if the expectations for content far outweigh the expectations for delivery. Combine your self-evaluation with the feedback from your instructor, boss, and/or peers to set specific and measurable goals and then assess whether or not you meet them in subsequent speeches. Once you achieve a goal, mark it off your list and use it as a confidence booster. If you don’t achieve a goal, figure out why and adjust your strategies to try to meet it in the future.
Physical Relaxation Exercises
Suggestions for managing speaking anxiety typically address its cognitive and behavioral components, while the physical components are left unattended. As we learned earlier, we can’t block these natural and instinctual responses. We can, however, engage in physical relaxation exercises to counteract the general physical signs of anxiety caused by cortisol and adrenaline release, which include increased heart rate, trembling, flushing, high blood pressure, and speech disfluency.
I liken confronting the physical aspects of public speaking anxiety to chemical warfare. Some breathing and stretching exercises release endorphins, which are your body’s natural antidote to stress hormones. Deep breathing is a proven way to release endorphins. It also provides a general sense of relaxation and can be done discretely, even while waiting to speak. In order to get the benefits of deep breathing, you must breathe into your diaphragm. The diaphragm is the muscle below your lungs that helps you breathe and stand up straight, which makes it a good muscle for a speaker to exercise. To start, breathe in slowly through your nose, filling the bottom parts of your lungs up with air. While doing this, your belly should pooch out. Hold the breath for three to five full seconds and then let it out slowly through your mouth. After doing this only a few times, many students report that they can actually feel a flooding of endorphins, which creates a brief “light-headed” feeling. I lead my class in breathing exercises before the first few days of speeches. Once you have practiced and are comfortable with the technique, you can do this before you start your speech, and no one sitting around you will even notice. You might also want to try this technique during other stressful situations. Deep breathing before dealing with an angry customer or loved one, or before taking a test, can help you relax and focus.
Discretely stretching your wrists and calf muscles is a good way to relieve anxiety and get your energy flowing while waiting to speak.
Stretching is another way to quickly and effectively release endorphins. Very old exercise traditions like yoga, tai chi, and Pilates teach the idea that stretching is a key component of having a healthy mind and spirit. Exercise in general is a good stress reliever, but many of us don’t have the time or willpower to do it. We can, however, all take time to do some stretching. Obviously, it would be distracting for the surrounding audience if a speaker broke into some planking or Pilates just before his or her speech. Simple and discrete stretches can help get the body’s energy moving around, which can make a speaker feel more balanced and relaxed. Our blood and our energy/ stress have a tendency to pool in our legs, especially when we’re sitting. The following stretch can help manage the physical manifestations of anxiety while waiting to speak. Start with both feet flat on the floor. Raise your back heels off the floor and flex and release your calf muscles. You can flex and release your calves once before putting your heels back down and repeating, or you can flex a few times on each repetition. Doing this three to five times should sufficiently get your blood and energy moving around. Stretching your wrists can also help move energy around in your upper body, since our huge amounts of typing and using other electronic controllers put a lot of stress on this intersection of muscles, tendons, and bones. Point one hand up at the wrist joint, like you’re waving at someone. Then use your other hand to pull, gently, the hand that’s pointing up back toward your elbow. Stop pulling once you feel some tension. Hold the hand there for a few seconds and release. Then point the hand down at the wrist joint like you’re pointing at something on the floor, and use the other hand to push the hand back toward your elbow. Again, stop pushing when you feel the tension, hold the stretch for a few seconds, and release. You can often do this stretch discretely as well while waiting to speak.
Vocal Warm-Up Exercises
Vocal warm-up exercises are a good way to warm up your face and mouth muscles, which can help prevent some of the fluency issues that occur when speaking. Newscasters, singers, and other professional speakers use vocal warm-ups. I lead my students in vocal exercises before speeches, which also helps lighten the mood. We all stand in a circle and look at each other while we go through our warm-up list. For the first warm-up, we all make a motorboat sound, which makes everybody laugh. The full list of warm-ups follows and contains specific words and exercises designed to warm up different muscles and different aspects of your voice. After going through just a few, you should be able to feel the blood circulating in your face muscles more. It’s a surprisingly good workout!
Sample Vocal Warm-Ups
- Purse your lips together and make a motorboat sound. Hold it for ten seconds and repeat. “BBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBB.”
- Clench your teeth and say, “N, N, N, N,” to stretch your cheek muscles.
- Say “Mum” five times, and open your mouth and eyes wide each time you say it.
- Say “Puh” five times, making sure to use your diaphragm to enunciate the h.
- Say “Red Rover” ten times, overenunciating each r.
- Say “Wilbur” ten times, overenunciating the w and r.
- Say “Bumblebee” ten times, enunciating each b.
- Say “Red letter, yellow letter” five times, making sure to distinctly pronounce each word.
- Say “Selfish shellfish” five times, making sure to distinctly pronounce each word.
- Say “Unique New York” five times, enunciating the q and k.
Top Ten Ways to Reduce Speaking Anxiety
As you can see in this section, there are many factors that contribute to speaking anxiety, and there are many ways to address it. The following is a list of the top ten ways to reduce speaking anxiety that I developed with my colleagues, which helps review what we’ve learned.
- Remember, you are not alone. Public speaking anxiety is common, so don’t ignore it—confront it.
- Remember, you can’t literally “die of embarrassment.” Audiences are forgiving and understanding.
- Remember, it always feels worse than it looks.
- Take deep breaths. It releases endorphins, which naturally fight the adrenaline that causes anxiety.
- Look the part. Dress professionally to enhance confidence.
- Channel your nervousness into positive energy and motivation.
- Start your outline and research early. Better information = higher confidence.
- Practice and get feedback from a trusted source. (Don’t just practice for your cat.)
- Visualize success through positive thinking.
- Prepare, prepare, prepare! Practice is a speaker’s best friend.
- Getting integrated: Public speaking anxiety is a form of communication apprehension (CA) that is commonly experienced by many people and can be effectively managed using a variety of strategies. While we most often think of public speaking anxiety as an issue in the classroom and workplace, it can affect communication in personal and civic contexts as well.
- Systematic desensitization helps lessen public speaking anxiety through repeated exposure to real or imagined public speaking scenarios.
- Cognitive restructuring addresses public speaking by replacing negative thoughts with more positive thoughts, and COM therapy can help you view public speaking as a conversation rather than a performance.
- Skills training allows you to focus on improving specific skills related to public speaking, which can increase confidence and lead to further skill development.
- Physical relaxation exercises like deep breathing and stretching allow us to voluntarily use our bodies to address involuntary bodily reactions to anxiety.
Allen, M., John E. Hunter, and William A. Donohue, “Meta-analysis of Self-Report Data on the Effectiveness of Public Speaking Anxiety Treatment Techniques,” Communication Education 38, no. 1 (2009): 54–76.
Bodie, G. D., “A Racing Heart, Rattling Knees, and Ruminative Thoughts: Defining, Explaining, and Treating Public Speaking Anxiety,” Communication Education 59, no. 1 (2010): 70.
Motley, M. T., “COM Therapy,” in Avoiding Communication: Shyness, Reticence, and Communication Apprehension, eds. John A. Daly, James C. McCroskey, Joe Ayres, Tim Hopf, and Debbie M. Ayers Sonandre (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2009), 379–400.
Priem, J. S., and Denise Haunani Solomon, “Comforting Apprehensive Communicators: The Effects of Reappraisal and Distraction on Cortisol Levels among Students in a Public Speaking Class,” Communication Quarterly 57, no. 3 (2009): 260.