Public Speaking Anxiety

Apr 21 / RICHARD G. JONES, JR., PH.D.

If you feel fear, anxiety, or discomfort when confronted with the task of speaking in front of an audience, you are not alone. National polls consistently show that public speaking is among U.S. Americans’ top fears.

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Might As Well Face It Because You’re Gonna Have To Do It

Yet, since we all have to engage in some form of public speaking, this is a fear that many people must face regularly. Effectively managing speaking anxiety has many positive effects on your speaking ability and success. One major area that can improve with less anxiety is your speech delivery (it’s still on you to come up with good content). Although speaking anxiety is natural and normal, it can interfere with verbal and nonverbal delivery, which makes a speech less effective.   

In our upcoming “Crash Course on Public Speaking” you’ll learn some of the best tips and tricks that we’ve learned over our 25 years of collective experience teaching public speaking to a wide variety of adult learners. Make sure to share your email in the sign-up box to receive the latest information and updates from your Learning Leaders at the Communication Leader Academy.  

What is Public Speaking Anxiety?

I’ve taught a stand-alone public speaking course over 75 times in my 17 years of teaching. My award-winning book, Communication in the Real World, has been used by tens of thousands of college students around the world to help them improve their communication skills and competence. 
 
One of the main things I have learned in that time, is how to help people manage their fears and stressors related to public speaking. Aside from the experience I have gained firsthand, we as communication studies researchers and scholars know a lot about public speaking anxiety since it is one of the most researched concepts in our field.   

Public speaking anxiety is a type of communication apprehension that produces physiological, cognitive, and behavioral reactions in people when faced with a real or imagined presentation.

Physiological Responses to Public Speaking Anxiety 

Physiological responses to public speaking anxiety include increased heart rate, flushing of the skin or face, and sweaty palms, among other things. These reactions are the result of natural chemical processes in the human body. The fight or flight instinct helped early humans survive threatening situations. When faced with a ferocious saber-toothed tiger, for example, the body releases adrenaline, cortisol, and other hormones that increase heart rate and blood pressure to get more energy to the brain, organs, and muscles in order to respond to the threat. We can be thankful for this evolutionary advantage, but our physiology hasn’t caught up with our new ways of life. Our body doesn’t distinguish between the causes of stressful situations, so facing down an audience releases the same hormones as facing down a wild beast

Cognitive Reactions to Public Speaking Anxiety 

Cognitive reactions to public speaking anxiety often include intrusive thoughts that can increase anxiety: “People are judging me,” “I’m not going to do well,” and “I’m going to forget what to say.” These thoughts are reactions to the physiological changes in the body but also bring in the social/public aspect of public speaking in which speakers fear being negatively judged or evaluated because of their anxiety.  

The physiological and cognitive responses to anxiety lead to behavioral changes. All these thoughts may lead someone to stop their speech and return to their seat or leave the room completely. Anticipating these reactions can also lead to avoidance behaviors through which people intentionally avoid situations where they will have to speak in public.  

Since we can't always avoid public speaking, the tips below can help you address your fears of public speaking.  

In our “Crash Course On Public Speaking” you’ll learn some of the proven techniques that can be tailored to fit your personality and circumstances including: systematic desensitization, cognitive restructuring, positive visualization, and breathing and stretching exercises.   

In the meantime, here’s a “Top Ten List” of some of the best ways to reduce your public speaking anxiety.  
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