At the podium: facing the fear of public speaking
Say you have to present a project to a class, a project that you've spent weeks on and gave your all. Your notes are prepared, you know every aspect of what you're about to talk about, and yet your palms are sweaty, or you can feel a tingle down your spine, or your hands are shaking. The feeling only makes you stumble on your words more than you think you should because it reiterates the thought that you are going to fail. You stumble through anyway, because all these eyes are on you for the next few minutes, anticipating every word you say.
Maybe your experience isn't so intense, or maybe you honestly don't prepare enough, but public speaking is commonly avoided because of the anxiety it causes.
It is almost impossible to navigate through life without the ability to communicate effectively, which is why public speaking is highly valuable.
“So much of our success in everything we do comes down to how well we communicate with others,” said Professor Nate Brown, who teaches multiple communication studies courses at Santa Monica College. He explained that whether the situation is interpersonal, like during a job interview or date, formal, like during an appeal in court, or involves a large group, public speaking is a necessary skill.
Professor Amanda Whidden, another SMC communication studies professor, attributes students’ fear to the increasing self awareness that comes with growing up. “As we start to become so aware of ourselves that others are looking at us or judging us or evaluating, we start to develop that apprehension or anxiety about that behavior," said Whidden. She added that speaking publicly puts a person in a vulnerable position, especially when the subject matter is personal. "We’re fearful of people and their judgement,” she said.
While Brown agrees that most students are normally apprehensive, that apprehension can only do so much and doesn’t stop them from giving a good speech. He explained that the simple fear can't stop a person from adequate preparation by choosing a good topic, doing research, organizing main points, creating helpful visual aids, diligently practicing and so on. "Everyone can do excellent work on those steps regardless of their level of speech anxiety," said Brown.
He added that, for many students, success is directly related to preparation. "When a student hasn't done good work, hasn't chosen a good topic, hasn't organized the speech logically, hasn't done good research, hasn't practiced properly, then he or she should be nervous because the speech is not going to be any good.”
Brown, however, recognizes that simple anxiety does have a powerful affect. “There is evidence that some people have bodies that are better at regulating nervous symptoms than other people," he said. He explained that breathing, heart rate, and digestive processes can all be affected by nervousness. The body can even release of a type of adrenaline that can make a person feel bad. "These physiological symptoms are likely part of our fight or flight response," said Brown. "Which is good for when we are being chased by a bear, but not so good when we have to stand in front of a group and communicate ideas.”
According to both Brown and Whidden, when a person's confidence in or fear of public speaking is an issue, practice is the best way to improve.
For Brown,“The more we speak in public...the more we learn that we can be good at it with just a little preparation. The more we realize we can be good at it, the less we are afraid of being judged badly," he said.
Whidden suggested enrolling in speech classes on campus. “The number one thing that people can do to overcome that fear is to gain experience in public speaking. She also mentioned that most students are required to take at least one public speaking class if they intend to transfer or fulfill IGETC requirements.
In addition to meeting basic requirements, Whidden suggested taking classes because it is safe for those who fear judgement but want to improve. “You don’t have to go out and assume that everybody in there is going to be an expert or a professional public speaker...Everybody is learning together and it’s a really easy and fun and safe way to gain public speaking experience.” She also advised students to choose a professor whom they feel safe with, particularly one that cultivates a judgement-free space.
Understanding how professors handle students who are extremely apprehensive is also a good way to ensure that students feel comfortable taking take speech classes.
“I help them choose topics that will be easier. I remind them that their fear can't stop them from preparing an excellent speech,” said Brown. He also added that often times he will help the student treat a speech more like a conversation by asking students simple questions when he or she is in front of the class. "That helps those students learn that they have the information and are able to communicate it,” Brown explained.
"Confidence in ourselves is the number one thing we need to get over our fear of public speaking,” said Brown.
Whidden encourages students to think positively as a way to curb the adrenaline rush that triggers the negative feelings. "You can change the way that you see public speaking, but additionally you can start to change your body chemistry to not respond physically like that,” she said.