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Speech Anxiety

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Whether you call it speech anxiety, communication apprehension, fear of public speaking, or just plain fear, one thing is certain, the majority of people experience the same thing when speaking to a group of people in a formal setting. Sometimes just the thought of giving a speech makes us feel uncomfortable. Sometimes those feelings manifest into physical reactions such as sweating, stuttering, flushedness, and dizzieness. Often we forget what we are going to say, feel unprepared and unsure, and just want the experience to end. With information, experience, and self-confidence, however, you can reduce these experiences and deliver an effective speech.

There are many ways to approach giving a speech, though only one is optimal. Some people regard delivering a speech as no problem. Often people with high speech anxiety wish they could be so confident and unafraid. This no problem approach is not without its drawbacks, however. People with this approach are often so confident in their speaking abilities, that they fail to prepare even an outline of their speech. In other words, although the delivery is skilled, the content lacks direction, clarity, and focus. Furthermore, because the speaker has only considered their own abilities, they have failed to consider the other crucial part of a speech - the audience. Effective speakers must consider how the audience might respond to the delivery and content of the speech. Because speakers with a no problem approach are often so confident in their own abilities that they forget how crucial the audience is to the success or failure of their speech.

Speakers with high speech anxiety often place the emphasis on the wrong place as well. Anxious speakers tend to focus more on what the audience might think about them and what they are presenting. Again, equal emphasis must be placed on the speaker and the audience. Speakers experiencing anxiety often try to manage their uncomfortable feelings by being well organized and prepared. Anxious speakers often invest a lot of time and effort into preparing a very informative speech but struggle to convey that information effectively. They may, for example, read their entire speech verbatim. Though informative, public reading is not nearly as interesting to the audience, nor as effective as public speaking. Consideration must be given to what is said (content), how it is said (delivery), and who it is said to (audience).

One common strategy that is used to reduce speech anxiety is to view a speech as a communication opportunity, a chance to share ideas and information with others. Although most people feel comfortable with communication opportunities when one-on-one and in small groups, that feeling of comfort changes to anxiety when communicating with others one-on-many. Public speaking really is one-on-one communication, however, just with multiple ones. That is, you are a person trying to communicate effectively with several individuals simultaneously. Remember, a speech is not a performance. A speech is about being yourself and sharing what you know with others.

Another strategy to reduce speech anxiety is to avoid regarding a speech as an opportunity to fail. Mistakes will occur and although avoiding a speech to avoid making a mistake may make you feel better temporarily, remember that you have missed an opportunity to practice. Regardless of your performance, each time you deliver a speech you gain experience. It is that experience that develops confidence, even if a few mistakes are made along the way.

Finally, keep in mind that some anxiety about public speaking is normal so do not expect that the symptoms will immediately or completely disappear. It is more likely that the feelings of anxiety will weaken over time with information and practice. Anxiety is a form of psychological arousal as is excitement. Therefore, with experience you may be able to transform your speech anxiety into speech excitement. To this end, a 3-point strategy has been developed to assist in the management of speech anxiety. The UMP will help you manage the anxiety often associated with public speaking so that you can improve the content and delivery of your speeches.

UMP

  • Understand speech anxiety
  • Manage physical and emotional responses
  • Plan a course of action to effectively deal with those responses

U - Understand

Generally speaking, speech anxiety are feelings of nervousness, dread, and concern that people experience before, during, or after public speaking. Academic researchers use the term communication apprehension to describe this condition and define it as "the fear or anxiety associated with real or anticipated communication with others" (Dwyer, 1998, p. 9). Speech anxiety and communication apprehension are terms used interchangeably to describe similar (if not the same) phenomena. According to Brydon and Scott (1987, p. 58) "speech anxiety refers to the feelings of discomfort that people experience before or during speaking in public." Whereas DeVito (1999, p. 58) describes communication apprehension as a "feeling of fear or anxiety about a situation in which one must communicate," especially when the communication act takes place in a public forum. Therefore, throughout this primer, the term speech anxiety will be used to refer to both concepts.

More people are afraid of public speaking than anything else. Polls frequently report that public speaking is the top fear of most adult Americans above bankruptcy, dental visits, divorce, and death. Although most people dislike public speaking to one degree or another, it is a necessary skill required by many professions and helpful in almost all business, educational, and social situations. In careers ranging from the legal profession to sales, marketing to engineering, volunteering to teaching, effective public speaking skills are an asset and often a requirement for success. Instead of thinking of public speaking as a punishment, consider it as a meaningful addition to your personal toolbox of skills and abilities. In fact, public speaking has three key advantages: 1) it develops critical thinking skills, 2) encourages creativity, and 3) plays a key role in leadership (McKay, 2000).

It is common for someone experiencing speech anxiety to have physical reaction before, during, and after a speech. Public speaking, from the mere possibility all the way through the speech itself, can trigger one or all of the following reactions:

  • increased breathing
  • flushing
  • dry mouth
  • excessive perspiration
  • rapid heartbeat
  • trembling
  • upset stomach
  • dizziness
  • voice fluctuation
  • excessive nervous energy

Many of these reactions are due to the fight-or-flight response. The fight-or-flight response is an automatic response in our bodies when our minds perceive a real or imagines threat. Furthermore, as the severity of the threat increases, the intensity of the reactions also increase. Therefore, to the extent that a person sees public speaking as a threatening situation, they will experience the fight-or-flight reactions which are seen as anxiety. In order to minimize the anxiety arising from these fight-or-flight reactions, one needs to reduce the threat associated with public speaking. Reducing the threat can be done by preparing strong outlines and practicing over and over again.

Speech anxiety also frequently consists of a psychological reaction. Students in previous public speaking classes here at the University of Tennessee report the following phycological reactions:

  • fear of the spotlight
  • fear of failure
  • fear of rejection
  • uncertainty
  • humiliation
  • no control
  • hostile audience
  • forgetting speech
  • looking nervous

Now that some time has been spent understanding speech anxiety, the next section will address how to manage the anxiety so that it can be refocused into something useful.

M - Manage

Once you have a clear understanding of speech anxiety, you are ready to consider ways to manage the anxiety. One strategy for managing speech anxiety is to ensure that you are prepared to deliver an effective speech. Therefore, several rules for effective public speaking are presented below:

  • choose a topic that you know well
  • have a positive attitude towards your speech
  • set realistic presentation goals
  • view the audience as a source of support
  • never memorize a speech
  • never read your speech
  • never apologize at the beginning of your speech
  • know that nervousness is not readily seen by the audience

Even the most accomplished speakers experience some level of arousal before a speech, the key is that they have learned to think of that arousal as excitement instead of a threat or anxiety. Although this learning curve can be steep, it is possible to teach yourself to think of your anxiety as excitement. No single technique will work for everyone but former University of Tennessee public speaking students have suggested:

  • give yourself a chance, you cannot improve if you do not try 
  • be yourself
  • be prepared
  • do not expect to be perfect

In addition to these suggestions, relaxation techniques and stress management tools are often recommended to combat speech anxiety. Again, the best remedy for your speech anxiety is the combination of these ideas that works best for you. Think of what makes you feel better when you are stressed and give that a try first. Here are some options:

  • deep breathing exercises - to reduce heart rate
  • relaxation - do yoga, mediate, stretch
  • stress relief - have a massage, listen to music, engage in a hobby
  • exercise - run, lift weights, swim, take an aerobics class
  • maintenance - sleep and eat well
  • find a calm place - imagine yourself in a desirable location

P - Plan

The final step in the UMP is to plan a course of action where you prepare and practice. This may seem simple but this step is perhaps the most important. Do not plan to memorize a speech, nor should it be read from a script. The best way to plan for a speech is to write a brief topical outline on a single page of paper or three to five notecards. The following is a brief topical outline format that will help you organize an informative speech.

I. Introduction

Greeting (good morning, afternoon, evening)

Name

Topic/Thesis Statement

Credibility (what makes you a trustworthy and expert speaker on this topic)

Relevance (why is this topic important to the audience)

II. Body

Point 1 (with evidence)

Point 2 (with evidence)

Point 3 (with evidence)

III. Conclusion

Notifier (in conclusion, to summarize, etc.)

Recap/Summary

 

Note: If index cards are being used, do not place more than one section on a single card.

Practice is another critical component of planning for a successful speech. Even if you know and like your topic you will still need to practice. You must practice for time, content, and delivery. Your speech must not be too long or too short but should fall within an acceptable range for the purpose of the speech. For example, informative speeches are typically between three to five minutes. When you practice for content, listen to the order of information and question if it is interesting, informative, meaningful, and understandable. Remember that you can not possibly speak on all there is to know on your topic in three to five minutes. It is possible to educate, enlighten, interest, and entertain in that amount of time, however. When you practice for delivery, consider the speech rate, vocalics, eye contact, and body language. When practicing, keep in mind that you will be more critical of yourself than your audience could ever be of you.

In summary, most people experience speech anxiety to some degree. Learn to think of the arousal associated with public speaking as exitement rather than anxiety so that you feel enthusiastic about public speaking rather than nervous. Engage your audience in an interactive presentation that reflects your plan and preparation. In short, if you can understand what speech anxiety is, manage your physical and psychological responses, and plan a course of action you will be able to have a more positive and productive public speaking experience.

References

Brydon & Scott (1997). Between One and Many: The art and science of public speaking. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.

DeVito (1999). Messages: Building interpersonal communication skills. (4th Ed.). New York, NY: Longman.

Dwyer (1998). Conquer Your Fear of Speechfright. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace.

McKay (2000). Public Speaking: Theory into practice. (4th Ed.). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Motley (1997). Overcoming Your Fear of Public Speaking: A proven method. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Thomas (1997). Public Speaking Anxiety: How to face the fear. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.