Public Speaking Anxiety

Definition, Examples, and Solutions

Cicero
"I turn pale at the outset of a speech," said the great Roman orator Cicero, "and quake in every limb." (Quoted by Scott Stossel in My Age of Anxiety, 2014). De Agostini/G. Dagli Orti/Getty Images

Public speaking anxiety (PSA) is defined as the intense worry and fear that a person experiences when delivering or preparing to speak to an audience. Public speaking anxiety is sometimes referred to as stage fright or communication apprehension.

How Common Is Public Speaking Anxiety

This form of anxiety is much more common than you think. In The Challenge of Effective Speaking, Rudolph F. Verderber et al. report that "as many as 76% of experienced public speakers feel fearful before presenting a speech," (Verderber et al. 2012).

Sheldon Metcalfe, author of Building a Speech, confirms that this fear is commonplace: "In a 1986 study of about a thousand individuals, researchers discovered that people identified public speaking as their number-one fear. Public speaking anxiety even outranked such fears as going to the dentist, heights, mice, and flying," (Metcalfe 2009). For some, the fear of public speaking is greater than the fear of death, heights, or snakes.

Causes of Public Speaking Anxiety

So what causes public speaking anxiety to rank so high on the world's list of phobias? Author Cindy L. Griffin writes: "[M]ost people's ... anxiety about public speaking exists for six reasons. Many people are ... anxious because public speaking is

  1. Novel. We don't do it regularly and lack necessary skills as a result.
  2. Done in formal settings. Our behaviors when giving a speech are more prescribed and rigid.
  3. Often done from a subordinate position. An instructor or boss sets the rules for giving a speech, and the audience acts as a critic.
  4. Conspicuous or obvious. The speaker stands apart from the audience.
  5. Done in front of an audience that is unfamiliar. Most people are more comfortable talking with people they know ...
  6. A unique situation in which the degree of attention paid to the speaker is quite noticeable ... Audience members either stare at us or ignore us, so we become unusually self-focused," (Griffin 2009).

6 Strategies for Managing Anxiety Before Speaking

If you suffer from public speaking anxiety and are about to give a speech, don't worry. There are things you can do to minimize your fear and manage your anxiety in advance. Follow these tips, adapted from Public Speaking: The Evolving Art, to get ahead of the problem.

  1. Start planning and preparing your speech early.
  2. Choose a topic you care about.
  3. Become an expert on your topic.
  4. Research your audience.
  5. Practice your speech.
  6. Know your introduction and conclusion well (Coopman and Lull 2012).

5 Strategies for Managing Anxiety While Speaking

Once you've adequately prepared for your speech, you'll want a toolkit of approaches to managing your anxiety when you're in front of your audience. These strategies from Harvard Business Essentials: Business Communication are sure to help you win over your audience and quell your fear.

  1. Anticipate questions and objections, and develop solid responses.
  2. Use breathing techniques and tension-relieving exercises to reduce stress.
  3. Stop thinking about yourself and how you appear to the audience. Switch your thoughts to the audience and how your presentation can help them.
  4. Accept nervousness as natural, and do not try to counteract it with food, caffeine, drugs, or alcohol prior to the presentation.
  5. If all else fails and you start getting the shakes, pick out a friendly face in the audience and talk to that person.

Be Prepared

One of the best things any public speaker can do for themselves is come prepared and one of the best ways to prepare is with a checklist. The College Writer: A Guide to Thinking, Writing, and Researching offers a list of strategies to use throughout a speech.

You can fall back on any of these tactics when you don't know what to say or need a moment to reorient yourself. If you don't think you can remember these, jot them down on a notecard and take them with you when it's time to speak. The less pressure you put on yourself, the better.

Speaking Strategies Checklist

  1. Be confident, positive, and energetic.
  2. Maintain eye contact when speaking or listening.
  3. Use gestures naturally--don't force them.
  4. Provide for audience participation; survey the audience: "How many of you ___ ?"
  5. Maintain a comfortable, erect posture.
  6. Speak up and speak clearly—don't rush.
  7. Reword and clarify when necessary.
  8. After the presentation, ask for questions and answer them clearly.
  9. Thank the audience.

Changing Your Mindset

Strategies for battling your anxiety will help you be successful during your next speech, but there are also steps you can take to overcome your fear for good. Changing your mindset toward public speaking might just be your ticket to ridding yourself of PSA.

Be Flexible

Of course, as much as you prepare yourself, your speech will not go exactly according to plan. Don't let small mistakes increase your anxious thoughts. To prevent yourself from choking during a speech, psychologist Sian Beilock suggests staying flexible. "Sometimes you may need several different pressure-fighting strategies at once as when you find yourself delivering an important presentation that you've practiced to perfection while at the same time you have to field difficult questions on the fly.

To succeed in this pressure-filled situation, you will not only have to combat worries, you will also have to make sure you don't exert too much control over your well-practiced speech routine. Understanding why different high-pressure situations can derail performance allows you to pick the right strategy to prevent choking," (Beilock 2011).

Learn to Welcome Nerves

Even for those that don't experience PSA, feeling nervous before a speech is normal, human, and healthy. Author Frances Cole Jones encourages you to see nervousness differently: "[T]he trick to managing nervousness is starting to think of being nervous simply as being alive. ... "I recommend you say to yourself, 'Wow, I'm nervous. Excellent! That means I'm alive and have energy to spare. What should I do with this spare energy? Give it away—knock the socks off my audience.'

As you learn to do this—to welcome nervousness, breathe into it, and recycle it as additional commitment and animation—you may actually begin to look forward to it, to try to be nervous if you aren't nervous," (Jones 2008).

Thinking Makes It So

Some argue that the expression "mind over matter" applies to public speaking anxiety. Coping With Speech Anxiety gives suggestions for how to adjust your expectations for yourself and think positive thoughts. "If people feel their public speaking skills can meet or exceed the audience's expectations, then they will not perceive the situation as threatening. If, however, people do not feel their skills are adequate to meet audience expectations then the situation will be perceived as threatening.

Cognitive theorists believe that thinking counterproductive thoughts like this triggers public speaking anxiety. When people perceive public speaking as something to be feared, the perception elicits physiological reactions appropriate to a situation in which the person's physical well-being is threatened (increased heartrate, sweating, etc.). These physiological changes reinforce the person's definition of the situation as something to be feared," (Ayres and Hopf 1993).

Sources

  • Ayres, Joe, and Tim Hopf. Coping WIth Speech Anxiety. Ablex, 1993.
  • Beilock, Sian. Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. Atria Books, 2011.
  • Coopman, Stephanie J., and James Lull. Public Speaking: The Evolving Art. 2nd ed. , Wadsworth, 2012.
  • Griffin, Cindy L. Invitation to Public Speaking. 3rd ed. Wadsworth, 2009.
  • Harvard Business Essentials: Business Communication. Harvard Business School Press, 2003.
  • Jones, Frances Cole. How to Wow: Proven Strategies for Selling Your [Brilliant] Self in Any Situation. Ballantine Books, 2008.
  • Metcalfe, Sheldon. Building a Speech. Wadsworth Publishing, 2009.
  • VanderMey, Randall, et al. The College Writer: A Guide to Thinking, Writing, and Researching. 3rd ed., Wadsworth, 2009.
  • Verderber, Rudolph F., et al. The Challenge of Effective Speaking. 15th ed., Cengage Learning, 2012.