Dealing with Speech Apprehension

When it comes to peoples’ greatest fears, you are not alone if public speaking tops your list! A 2001 Gallup poll showed that fear of public speaking (40%) came in second only to fear of snakes (51%)! I don’t believe much has changed in the past decade regarding our fear of public speaking. In fact, living so much of our lives online may have actually increased the fear of speaking in front of “live,” face-to-face, human beings!

Anxiety when it comes to speaking in front of people, whether small or large groups, is normal. Fears related to blushing cheeks, stumbling over words, dry mouth, or worries about whether your audience will find your message interesting or boring are all quite common.

While it may feel and seem like “everyone” can see your anxiety when you are speaking in front of a group, most feelings related to speech apprehension are not visible. Feeling every beat of your heart thud in your chest, sensing a fleet of butterflies taking flight in your stomach, or suddenly feeling sweaty and clammy all at once are regular types of physiological responses to public speaking. Knowing that these are normal occurrences can actually help you work through them!

So how does YOUR body react to the experience of public speaking? Debates continue about whether or not speech apprehension is inborn, due to underdeveloped skills, or is a result from negative reinforcement. (Do memories of that “Show-and-Tell” from first grade that didn’t go quite like you had hoped plague you?!)

Knowing what is a “normal” response from your body and mind when you are faced with speaking in front of a group of live people is very helpful in successfully delivering your presentation or speech. It lets you know that for YOU, these physiological responses are normal. Sure, added experience certainly helps lessen the death-grip feeling of some of these fear-of-public-speaking symptoms. But by simply thinking through how your body felt during the last ventures you’ve had giving speeches or presentations where the pressure to succeed was on helps you know what to be ready for. It gives you an idea of what to expect next time you speak.

For example, I do a lot of public speaking and happen to love it. But I know that typically, the first 10 seconds or so of really big events deliver a flutter in the high pit of my stomach. And if I pay attention to what I am sensing during those initial seconds of my message, I can recall a type of “normal for me” pattern in that I really only hear what’s in my head and my voice coming out of my mouth. It’s as if all other auditory functions are placed on “pause” for those initial seconds. Just knowing that this “may” occur in me at the beginning of an important presentation in front of many people helps equip me to work through it.

Nervousness related to public speaking can actually help you focus. It can energize your mind. For example, it can work for you when nervousness is accompanied by positive thoughts like, “I can do this! I have an important message to share. People want to hear my presentation. I am prepared. I have practiced. I am ready with the right volume, rate, and pitch. I am unafraid of silent pauses. I will capture and keep my audience’s attention – from my introduction to my wrap.”

So the next time you are going to do some public speaking:

  • Know that nervousness and apprehension are normal.
  • Reflect and be ready for how your body may physiologically respond.
  • Prepare for your speech or presentation (more about that in a subsequent blog!).
  • And then give yourself a string of positive thoughts about you speaking in front of a group of people!

You CAN master fear of public speaking! And it may even be easier than dealing with snakes!

Dr. Heidi Scott – Interpersonal Communication and Public Speaking Instructor