Dealing with Communication Anxiety and Public Speaking
How do you feel when you give a speech?
- Now, ask yourself this question: on what other occasions have I felt this way? Have I experienced similar feelings while on a date; riding on a roller-coaster; flying in an airplane? Did I feel much the same way when I was playing in the “big game” or performing a musical solo? In these cases, the feelings that you experience are often termed “butterflies” or “pre-game jitters.”
- The point is this—the feelings that arise in the settings just mentioned are the very same feelings that create speech anxiety. So, is it possible for your anxiety to actually help you? By All Means! The anxiety one feels before an event such as a musical solo or a speech provides one with the energy and the incentive to prepare that leads to success—if you allow it. That is to say, with the proper techniques the anxiety and stress felt before a speech can be managed or reduced. Indeed, with patience and the proper attitude, these feelings may prove to be a catalyst to success!
Defining Communication Apprehension or “Speech Anxiety”
- Public Speaking, or talking in front of others, consistently counts as one of the foremost fears of individuals. Indeed, many people place public speaking ahead of death itself in their relative ranking of fears. It is no wonder, then, that a significant number of people tend to avoid situations where they are expected to speak, communicate, or perform in front of others. An even greater number of people, though not avoiding public speaking situations, nevertheless experience a degree of anxiety and stress which prevents them from communicating as effectively as they would have liked. Students, for example, may struggle through, or seek to avoid altogether, a required public speaking course; job candidates consumed with anxiety may sell themselves short or project an inferior image of themselves during an interview in front of potential employers; individuals may choose a job or career of limited potential; business professionals or workers may be passed up for, or even refuse outright, a promotion because of their fears surrounding speaking in front of others. Clearly, speech anxiety poses a real problem in many people’s lives.
- The short version? Anxiety itself is part of the human condition. Broadly defined, anxiety is a multi-system response to a perceived threat or danger that reflects a combination of biochemical changes in the body, the [persons] personal history and memory, and the social [or communication] situation (Frey, 1999).
THE GOOD NEWS? Speech Apprehension is Normal!
- 1 in 5 people are highly communication apprehensive. Individuals consistently rank public speaking among their worst fears—more fear-provoking than snakes, spiders, even DEATH. The bottom line is that speech anxiety is NORMAL.
MORE GOOD NEWS? Speech Apprehension can be Reduced and Managed!
- Speech anxiety manifests both physical and psychological symptoms. The first step is to begin to understand how YOU uniquely experience the physical and psychological symptoms of speech anxiety. Some people tremble or shake and sweat profusely—their hands especially begin to feel moist. Other people notice that their heart rate begins to quicken and their mouths become parched. Most people find that their mind begins to “race”, their thoughts become jumbled, and they have great difficulty putting their thoughts into any coherent order. Again, these reactions are the bodies’ quite natural response to the stressor of standing exposed in front of an audience. Remember that you are experiencing the famous biologically programmed “fight or flight” response of your pre-historic ancestors—the very same response felt by our ancestors when suddenly confronting a saber-toothed tiger (though I’m sure some would rather face the tiger than the audience)! However, if you can identify how you experience speech anxiety, you might then better control the symptoms and ultimately become a more competent public speaker. The following tips can help you along.
How To Manage Your Anxiety:
- Prepare ahead.
- Realize it exists. What are your fears? Make a list of your fears. Now look to see what is realistic, what is not? Would the entire audience REALLY begin pointing, laughing, and mocking you? Probably not. Could you drop your cards, yes. What would you do? How about pick them up? See…you can plan how to respond to realistic fears.
- Practice breathing and relaxing. Most fear can be reduced by deliberate slow breathing. Breath with the diaphragm. One way to remember how is: Breath in Big Baby Belly…Breath out Belly In. Plan and practice your breathing. Try visualization exercises.
- Don’t clench your fists or lock your knees…boy that will bottle the stress right in!
What can you do to minimize your symptoms?
- Use Visual Aids – PowerPoint, Posters, Objects, Videos, etc. help you remember segments of your speech and help you to move to that area physically and mentally. Use items that are familiar and make you feel good. Make sure you practice with them and have taken time to prepare them. A poorly designed and sloppy visual aid will increase your anxiety, not reduce it.
- Have a “gimmick” for each part of your speech…role-plays, skits, poems, music, etc. This helps you to look forward to different areas of your speech.
- How about audience participation…close your eyes, imagine this…
- Might you use a “helper?” However, the helper might be very nervous and cause more harm than good.
- Movement helps breathing! Plan and practice your movement. The most logical times to move would be during the transitions of your speech.
- Get support! Talk to your teacher, a friend, another student in the class, a counselor, etc.
- Have Realistic Goals! Some folks do not completely eliminate speech anxiety, but instead learn to reduce it or manage it. Set goals and make specific plans for each section of your speech…For example, know what you should do in the introduction, then maybe plan to walk to a visual aid to help you BREATHE!
- Think positive thoughts! Don’t engage in self-sabotage…some people will get “stuck” during the brainstorming process of finding a topic because nothing seems interesting enough to talk about. We are not that critical! Try to find a topic you can feel comfortable, but remember any topic can be good or bad, it is how you develop and use the topic!
- Know your Topic.
- Know your Audience.
- Know Yourself.
- Know your Speech.
- Focus on your Message, not yourself.
- Recognize your value and uniqueness.
- “Never let them see ya sweat!”
- Walk CALMLY. Don’t race up or down.
- Wait, don’t begin until you are ready. Take a few minutes to look over your notes, say your first sentence to yourself, take a deep breath, and then begin!
- Don’t “pack up” before you are done.
- Look to friendly folks. Can you bring a friend with?
- Take breaks with pauses, use movement (walk to your visual aids).
- Practice, “Concepts not Words.”
- DON’T MEMORIZE! Try extemporaneous style. This means, reduce your script to a key-word outline, constantly practicing reducing the notes and reducing the notes to keywords. Eventually you might not even need notes.
- Exercise. Try walking before your speech. More strenuous exercise should take place much earlier in the day, not just before your speech. Stretch your muscles throughout your body. Try isometric exercise (tense the muscle group, hold, release). Make a “Lion Face” and a “Mouse Face” to loosen up your facial muscles. Make fists, hold, release. Try shoulder rolls/lifts.
- You might warm up your voice: “my mama makes me eat my m and m’s” …you could even sing this up and down the music scale if you are brave or alone in your car!
- Avoid chocolate, milk and other substances that will cause your mucus to form…yuck! Water is always good. Not too much, you might need to use the bathroom…enough said.
- Caffeine is bad. Again, enough said…
- “Fake it until you make it” some folks say. Why not just pretend you are not afraid? “Act as if…” is another cliché some people use. Act as if you are not afraid.
- Dress for success. Wear your favorite outfit (it must be appropriate though…no belly shirts, etc.).
- Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. AND don’t take your shoes off while speaking…sure, it sounds like common sense, but many people do!
- Watch your classmates and learn. DO NOT compare yourself to them and “put yourself down.” It seems in life there is always someone you would like to be like, but there is someone saying the same thing wishing they could be like you!
- Remember, this is just a speech! Really, it is just a speech. You are a full person outside of this role as a speaker. You have friends and family, or at least a dog that loves you! Too many of us judge ourselves based upon too narrow of a role.
- Can you work harder on the outline, visual aids, etc. to help boost your sense of what you have accomplished?
- At the end of your speech, look out to the audience and nod your head…just like the gymnast who places her or his hands triumphantly up in the air whether the performance was good or bad!
- Try the “Stop and Calm Technique.”
- For those of you who “Stop and Calm” does not work, remember there is a role for professional help. You can use what is called, “systematic desensitization.” ASK FOR HELP! THERE IS HOPE!
Especially for ESL Students…
- Remember that all students experience anxiety.
- Try not to focus on your “accent” but instead on the message.
- Remember you do not need to talk about your culture, country, etc. unless you want to! Some students almost feel pressured to do so.
- Be aware of your time limit and practice so your speech is “just right” concerning time.
- Use visual aids. ESL students find this especially useful!
- PowerPoint or a Poster can help the audience “see the words” you might be afraid of pronouncing! Also, you might find that the audience’s attention is off of you!
- Write out words phonetically (as they sound).
- Which is better, writing in your language of origin vs. English? Try it both ways to discover what works best for you.
- Talk your speech through in both languages. Then, eventually, talk it through more and more in English. The idea is to memorize “concepts” and the “order” of your speech.