Very few people have the natural ability to walk up to a podium and deliver a perfect presentation without any sort of training—or fear. Indeed, most speakers gain their polish through practice, as well as through dedication to building the skills that increase their competence, confidence, and credibility as speakers.
If you include a speech or presentation as part of your class assignments, you probably have a number of students whose anticipation of that due date ranges from nervousness and apprehension to outright dread. And if they haven’t been exposed to speech or performance training, they may not realize that even if it looks easy for some people to speak in public, the process to get to that point probably wasn’t! On the positive side, they can be encouraged by the fact that, with some knowledge, skills, and experience, they too can learn how to conquer their fears and become more comfortable in front of an audience.
If some of your students are suffering from speech anxiety and you’d like to help them be more prepared for the “big day,” they may benefit from we gleaned from Cengage Advantage Books: The Speaker’s Compact Handbook, Fourth Edition by Jo Sprague, Douglas Stuart, and David Bodary. We’ve summarized some of their incredibly helpful guidance below:
- Recognize that most speakers experience some degree of fearfulness before or while giving a presentation. Those who appear calm, cool, and collected today have probably spent a great deal of time learning how to control or manage their fears. With practice, you can increase your skill and confidence, too!
- Ask yourself: What, precisely, is driving my fears? If you can give a name to what’s causing you anxiety, you may be better able to address it. The authors provide the four following steps for identifying and challenging your fears:
Step 1. Make a list of your fears using the following format to phrase each one: I am afraid [specific event] will occur and then [specific result] will follow.
Step 2. Consider the origin of that fear. What events in your life influenced your beliefs?
Step 3. Create a list of alternative interpretations of your experience. Talk to colleagues and classmates as a way to gain perspective.
Step 4. Decide not to be controlled by past experience. (19)
Now you’ve prepared your presentation, practiced as much as you could… and it’s speech day! Follow these strategies for remaining calm and collected when it comes time to give your presentation:
- If you’re feeling physically agitated before speech time, bust the tension with some light-to-moderate activity. If you can, step outside the room and take a quick-paced walk or do some stretches and shoulder rolls. You can also try to channel some of your adrenalin rush into energy for your speech!
- Natural relaxation techniques can also help: try breathing deeply, progressively tightening, then relaxing your muscles, or visualizing a calm and restful place. (Check your library or the Internet for some additional activities you can use.)
- Focus on success—not failure. Picture a positive (but realistic) outcome: you will do well, and your audience will be supportive. If you catch yourself mulling over negative thoughts (“I’m going to bomb”; No one will like my speech”; “I’m sure I’ll get a bad grade”), stop! Replace those thoughts with optimistic and constructive thoughts like: “I’m going to smile, remain calm, and keep eye contact with the audience. I will deliver my material confidently. If I happen to lose my place, I’ll check my notes and keep moving ahead.“ The authors recommend practicing these affirmations several days in advance of your speech; the repetition will help you replace those negative, fearful thoughts with the more positive and productive ones.
- Change how you view your audience. Instead of worrying that they’re there to criticize you, realize that most people are, in fact, supportive, willing to listen to what you have to say, and want you to do well. Hold on to the notion that you are sharing valuable, informative, or entertaining material with them. As you give your speech, choose to focus on the people who are paying closer attention and responding with positive body language (smiles, eye contact, nods of interest). Don’t allow any distracted or disengaged people to throw you off.
- For additional support, seek out resources such as workshops, organizations, or speech consultants who can provide training and exercises that teach you how to overcome shyness, speech anxiety, or “stage fright.” You may find some help on campus; some continuing education programs offer them as well. If you’re working, check to see if your employer offers workshops or training in this arena.
- If you implement these suggestions and still find yourself paralyzed by fear, you may also consider seeking assistance from a professional who can help you manage your anxieties. (18-23)
Though you may not find it simple to conquer your speech anxiety, you will find the practice of overcoming those anxieties worthwhile. Communicating competently and confidently has benefits in the classroom, the workplace, any organization you might join—and even among your friends and family!
Reference: Sprague, Jo, Stuart, Douglas, and Bodary, David. 2014. Cengage Advantage Books: The Speaker’s Compact Handbook, 4th ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
What are your suggestions for gaining confidence as a speaker? Share your ideas below.