3.1 Managing Speech Anxiety

Linda Macdonald

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to

  • Identify specific techniques for dealing with fear of public speaking

Your success in business depends on your ability to speak — to tell your story to interviewers, to present recommendations to a client, to express your ideas to your team members, or to pitch your product to investors. Speaking in public, whether with a small group or a large audience, develops your critical thinking, leadership skills, and professionalism and promotes you and your ideas. 

Despite the opportunities that come with presenting a speech, nearly everyone suffers from anxiety of public speaking. The Greeks gave us ways to understand and use rhetoric and the rhetorical appeals of logos, ethos, and pathos (discussed in Chapter 2.1); they also gave us a term for speech anxiety– glossophobia, from glossa meaning “tongue” and phobos meaning “fear” or “panic”. Our fears have been heightened by speaking in online meetings and virtual events. Online anxiety is exacerbated by the lack of direct eye contact and every fumble to find the unmute button. Social anxiety compounds speech anxiety.

This short Jerry Seinfeld clip explains the extent of our number one fear.

(Direct link to Seinfeld Clip)

In his YouTube video, “Why do we fear public speaking?“, Dave Guin tells us that we are biologically engineered to be cowards. Through a story about an early man facing a prehistoric bear in a cave, he compares fear of public speaking to the fear of the unknown. According to Guin, every one of us, in our common humanity, is afraid of the unknown and of public speaking. To manage this fear of speaking, Guin says we must desensitize ourselves. By practicing and putting ourselves forward, we reduce our fear. For many university students, however, it is not the prehistoric bear Guin describes that prompts a flight response: It’s peers.

As university co-op students of Commerce you are in a unique position. You are planning to enter a professional workplace but your classroom training is among social peers. Like all humans, you want to be included in your social group. Early peoples knew that staying with the group provided protection. Being rejected by the group could lead to vulnerability and death. Our biology drives us to stay with the group. The fear of social isolation is normal. Remember, though, that nearly everyone in the room shares this same fear.

You may not overcome your instinctive fear, but you can manage it. One way to deal with your fear is to turn the attention away from how you feel and toward how the audience feels. When you watch a speaker who is anxious and fumbling with the clicker, shifting weight from one hip to another, pacing quickly, or filling time with excessive “ums” and “uhs”, you begin to feel anxious yourself. As a member of the audience, you may feel concerned for the speaker and shift from listening to the content to focusing on the body movements. Audiences reflect the speaker’s feeling. If you speak with confidence in an interview, you are more likely to inspire the audience to feel confident in your abilities. If you are enthusiastic about your new business plan, investors will be more likely to become enthused themselves. Emotions are contagious.

To share a positive presence with your audience, find your confidence. Caroline Goyder’s TEDx Talk offers three techniques to access the confidence within us. Watch her 19-minute presentation.

(Direct link to Caroline Goyder’s Ted Talk: The surprising secret to speaking with confidence.)

To manage your anxiety, remember that your fear response is natural and normal, focus on your audience’s needs, and use the confidence within you. The following chapters will introduce additional ways to manage anxiety, including organizing the content of your presentation and practicing the vocal techniques and body movements that you will use in your delivery.

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3.1 Managing Speech Anxiety by Linda Macdonald is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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