National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
You feel your palms sweat as you struggle to recall the main points of your research in front of a large audience without looking at your index cards. Then your voice trembles once you begin to speak, further displaying an obvious lack of confidence.
If this describes you, you are one of the many suffering from speech anxiety, a common fear of communicating orally in a public setting. Public speaking is widely feared in our culture; it ranks not only as the majority of Americans’ most feared form of communication, but also their greatest fear overall, more feared than death.
There are various reasons why people fear giving speeches or presentations. Some are uncertain about their topics, feel they’re too shy or they might bore their audience, or suffer from a lack of any or all of the following: preparation, organization, passion and positive encouragement. Others may fear they’re wasting the audience’s time.
While it’s normal to fear speaking publicly, dwelling on these fears can leave a negative impact on the presentation. Studies show that a person’s psychological state, positive or negative, can affect his or her performance. Those overwhelmed by the prospect of public speaking may “choke” and draw a blank during a presentation, because based on experiences and prejudgments of such situations they believe themselves to be hopeless in speaking successfully.
For some, this fear comes naturally. Those who just can’t fight speech anxiety suffer from a condition known as stage fright, which is typically associated with entertainers, where a person will feel increased pulse and adrenaline and display nervousness and a lack of confidence once he or she is inclined to begin speaking. A speaker can combat both stage fright and speech anxiety by constantly practicing.
In spite of such widespread speech anxiety, public speaking is often considered a necessary skill. Ed Barks, a public speaking expert and trainer who has assisted thousands of professionals in the art of public speaking, firmly believes that successful public speaking leads to professional success, while less successful speakers and those who choose to dodge public speaking end up failing to meet their career goals. In his book The Truth About Public Speaking, he asks to those who feel indifference to public speaking, “Does it matter to you if your co-workers are getting promotions ahead of you? Could it affect your career if your competitors succeed at your expense? Is it really that big a deal if the charity you serve misses out on key funding sources?”
There are treatment options available to alleviate speech anxiety. One of them is a process known as systematic desensitization, which aims to help those with speech anxiety train in relaxing the muscles and learn to replace anxious response to stressors by associating these same stressors with relaxation. Other therapies, such as cognitive therapy and rational-emotive therapy, attempt to change the irrational ways speakers view themselves in public speaking concepts. These speakers often fear if unsuccessful they will be perceived differently in front of the members of their audience.
More traditionally, these are special courses available aimed to help improve a person’s public speaking abilities. In an article published in the scholarly journal Communication Education, University of Hartford professor Lynne Kelly and University of Northern Colorado professor James A. Keaten, who both specialize in communication, believe there are a number of factors that make a successful speech anxiety course. Among the things they consider are an “all of the above” approach that incorporates various treatment approaches such as skills treatments and cognitive therapies, gradually exposing students to scenarios where they must deal with stimuli that trigger anxiety and providing students with highly structured communication assignments along with feedback from the instructor. An all of the above approach in a speech class will not only give students a great deal of speech practice, but also help them deal with the stress of giving the speech.
Speech anxiety is hardly a rarity. Most people not only fear giving speeches, but also despise it. However, ability in oral communication is one of the top qualities employers look for in the job market, making public speaking more and more important to learn in today’s world. If a person who fears public speaking learns to loosen up and prepares with his or her mind set on the ever-important adage “practice, practice, practice”, the only way from there is up.