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Overcoming Your Fear of Public Speaking

Michael T. Motley
University of California, Davis

Focusing on speeches as communication tasks rather than performances, this guide offers assistance to any student who suffers from speech anxiety. In addition, the handbook offers advice on speech content and techniques for effective delivery. The introduction and first chapter are offered here. To see this text in its entirety, please go to our catalog to order a copy or call our Faculty Services Center at (800) 733-1717.


Realistic Targets of Anxiety Reduction and Misconceptions About Roadblocks
The Critical Step in Reducing Public-Speaking Anxiety: Adopting the Communication Orientation
Speech Delivery - A Comfortable and Effective Approach
Key Points Regarding Speech Content
A Review of Key Themes


Most everyone gets anxious about giving speeches. For some, the anxiety is overwhelming, or close to it. Here's how one 39- year old business executive describes his experience:
I get panicky about two weeks before the speech, and there'll be a few nights that I can't sleep because I'm so worried about it. Then when I give the speech, I feel like I'm out of control - like I don't really know what actually think I'm going to burst something. All I can think about is getting it over with, and then when it's finally over, I can't remember what happened. It's like I've practically "blacked out" during the speech.

A nurse in her early 30s puts it this way:
I just know something is going to go wrong and I'll embarrass myself in front of everyone. So I'm scared. I shake all over - my hands, my knees, my voice. It's terrible.

From a young man just starting out in public relations:
I always get through the speech, but I don't know how, because I'm petrified. And it seems like there's nothing I can do about it. I'm giving the speech - saying what I prepared - but it feels like some sort of robot is talking instead of me; because my mind is full of a zillion disjointed thoughts rushing around about my gestures, and voice, and eye contact, and even about my nervousness; maybe especially that. I sit down feeling relieved that it's over, but not really satisfied that I've given a very good speech.

You get the idea, I imagine, and chances are that you could provide your own description from your own experience. The details might vary a bit, but the bottom line is the same: Anxiety about public speaking is unpleasant at the very least. If the anxiety is severe enough, it can interfere with our ability to give a decent speech. It can even interfere with our willingness to give a speech at all.

These days, most of us are called upon to give speeches from time to time. And the frequency of these invitations or assignments increases as we become more active or prominent in our respective vocations, communities, business and professional associations, and so forth. It makes sense that those who experience anxiety in public speaking situations wish there were something they could do about it. I'm assuming that as a reader of this book, you are one such speaker.

I am assuming also that you can indeed do something about your anxiety, and can become a confident, relaxed, and competent speaker. I can say this without knowing you personally, simply because so many others in your predicament have been helped already through the very same approach that we will take in this book.

What I want to do in this first chapter is to acquaint you a bit with the nature of the problem. Of course, your past speech experiences may have made you as well acquainted with stage fright as you care to be! But it will be worthwhile to look at the anxiety in a more detached way. A basic understanding of the problem will help to give you confidence that it can be licked, and will help you to understand the approach we will be taking to solve the problem.


Practically everyone - about 85% of the population, in fact - experiences "stage fright" when they give a speech. Not all of these experiences are as severe as yours, maybe, but you probably would be surprised to know how many are. Survey shows, for example, that the number one fear among American adults - ranking above the fear of snakes, heights, disease, financial problems, or even death - is the fear of speaking before a group! This is not logical, of course, since the consequences of giving a speech are rarely on a par with disease, financial problems, falls from heights, and so forth. But then, lots of things about stage fright are illogical.

It may surprise you also to realize that among those who experience extreme stage fright are persons well known for being particularly good speakers. There are stories of extreme anxiety among some of our most successful and experienced politicians, evangelists, and entertainers. Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Billy Graham, Jane Fonda, Paul Lynde, Lily Tomlin, and Laurence Olivier are just a few of those reported to have suffered from extreme stage fright.

So, in terms of your public speaking, maybe you can take some comfort in knowing that you are not alone in experiencing the anxiety. And there should be some comfort in knowing that since the fear is practically universal, it obviously does not prevent successful speeches.

Yet I'll bet you are thinking that even if a lot if successful speakers have stage fright, it would be nicer if you could be a successful speaker without it. I agree, and achieving that goal is precisely what this book is about.

By the way, it is only about public-speaking anxiety. It is not about the stage fright of actors, musicians, and other performers. Nor is it about shyness, reticence, and the like (see Philip Zimbardo's excellent book, Shyness, if you are concerned about anxiety in everyday communication situations).

In essence, this book presents a treatment that has been employed successfully with hundreds of high-anxiety speakers over the past several years. I've also included a few chapters on basic public-speaking principles, geared specifically to improving your speeches - whether in the classroom or in business, professional, community, or other "real world" situations.

So that's where we're going. Let me give you an idea of how we're going to get there by briefly introducing a new way of viewing your stage fright and a new way of viewing your speeches.


There is one component of speech anxiety that you are no doubt already familiar with; namely, the physical symptoms. Most individuals report some combination of signs like sweaty palms, dry mouth, increased heart rate, shaky hands, quivering voice, weak knees, shortness of breath, and "butterflies" in the stomach. With all of this going on inside, it is no wonder that the experience can be an unpleasant one. For some people it is so unpleasant that public speaking situations are avoided completely, even to the point of sacrificing success in a chosen vocation. For example, I have treated attorneys, ministers, and public-relations executives who were on the verge of quitting their professions altogether in order to avoid the anxiety that accompanied their public-speaking obligations. And I have treated others in various fields who were sacrificing their own upward mobility by passing off speaking assignments to colleagues. (All of these individuals were able to conquer their anxiety, by the way.)

The physical symptoms are just one component of speech anxiety, however. There is a second element which, though less familiar, is in some ways more important - namely, the psychological interpretations of the symptoms. A few speakers, for example, will notice an increased heart rate, or a queasy stomach, and actually interpret the symptoms as a positive sign of being "charged up," or "emotionally ready" for the speech. For these rare individuals, the physical symptoms remain fairly subdued and are not particularly bothersome.

It would be nice if we all interpreted the symptoms positively, but most of us don't. Instead, we interpret the symptoms negatively. The psychology behind this interpretation is both curious and important to understand. Physically, the symptoms are similar (though not identical) to the symptoms that occur when we experience fear. Thus, it is easy for the anxious speaker to assume that the symptoms represent fear. But once we label an emotion as fear, we have to psychologically justify it by finding an object of the fear - something to be afraid of. Consequently, many speakers at this point begin to imagine and invent problems that might occur should their speech be less than perfect.

These imagined consequences are almost always exaggerated and irrational. As a simple example, many speakers will claim, "It's going to be embarrassing if I make a mistake." These individuals will later acknowledge, however, that their experience as audience members shows that audiences are in fact quite forgiving of a speaker's errors as long as the speech is generally worthwhile. And that's true, isn't it? From a rational point of view, the fear of being ridiculed for minor mistakes is obviously exaggerated. So are almost all of the other justifications speakers invent for their fears, as we will see later.

Now, to make matters worse, the two components we have mentioned so far -the physical symptom and the fear interpretations - can interact with one another to make a proverbial vicious cycle: The speaker interprets the symptoms as fear, and invents "justifications" for the "fear." This in turn intensifies the symptoms, which then leads to even worse "fears," which also have to be rationalized, and so on. Feeding off one another, both components can escalate to the point of extreme physiological arousal coupled with thoughts that catastrophic consequences of the speech are inevitable. In my research, for example, I have measured heart rates of over 200 beats per minute in speakers who have become convinced that they will "make fools of themselves" during their speech!


This view of speech anxiety - physical symptoms and fear-oriented rationalizations cycling and refueling one another - has been around for many years. But it has always raised a version of the old chicken-and-egg question: Which comes first, the symptoms or the imagined fears? And whichever comes first, which causes it to get started in the first place? Newer views of speech anxiety would answer that what comes first - and what gets the physical and psychological cycle rolling - so to speak, is yet another phase of public speaking anxiety. What gets the cycle rolling in the first place has to do with the speaker's view of speeches in general.

Specifically, most speakers with stage fright view speeches as performances. They view the speaker's role as that of satisfying an audience of "critics" set on evaluating the speaker's behaviors - gestures, language, eye contact, and so forth. Speakers with this "performance orientation" cannot describe with much precision just what kinds of behavior the audience-critics expect, but they assume at least that "proper" public-speaking behaviors should be rather formal and artificial - somehow "better" than their natural everyday speech.

An alternative orientation, and the one taken by many low-anxiety speakers, is the view that a speech is not a performance, but a communication encounter. Here, the speaker's role is to share ideas with an audience who is more interested in hearing what the speaker has to say than analyzing or criticizing a performance. Notice that this creates a situation which, at least in terms of its objectives, is not very different from everyday conversation. Later we will see that it doesn't differ much from everyday conversation in terms of behaviors, either.

As for how these different perspectives affect anxiety, it happens that the performance orientation has certain anxiety-arousing associations built in. In very basic terms, it works like this: Our physical "fight or flight" response - increased adrenaline, increased heart rate, and other related physical symptoms - is triggered by all kinds of "emergency" events. One of the things that will set off this response in most any social situation is knowing (or believing) that we are going to be evaluated. Something else that almost always triggers the response is being uncertain about "proper" or "formal" behavior in unfamiliar circumstances. Since both a concern about being evaluated and a concern about "proper" behaviors are part of the performance orientation, they trigger the physiological symptoms of anxiety in public speaking just like they do in other situations.

Speech anxiety may thus be thought of as at least a three-stage phenomenon: the performance orientation triggers the physiological arousal, which in turn triggers the "fear" interpretation, which cycles with rationalizations and justifications for the fear. All of this begins well in advance of the actual speech, and continues into the speech itself. Here is a simple diagram of the process:



So, high speech anxiety apparently contains three components: 1) a performance orientation causes 2) certain physical symptoms which are 3) interpreted through irrational justifications. It makes sense, then, that therapy for speech anxiety should be aimed at one or more of these components. And that is just what we find when we examine successful therapy techniques for public-speaking anxiety.

One popular approach, for example, concentrates on improving general public-speaking skills. The assumption is that speakers needn't be so anxious about audience reactions once they have polished their speaking skills. The jury is still out on this approach. Some have argued that while it may produce more polished speeches, it does not actually reduce anxiety. Still, the approach does seem useful for those with mild anxiety who are interested primarily in fine-tuning their speaking style.

In any case, public-speaking ability and public-speaking anxiety clearly do not go hand in hand. Some extremely anxious speakers are quite excellent (in everyone's opinion but their own), and speakers who approach the task so casually as to experience virtually no anxiety often do quite poorly. Most of us would like to "have our cake and eat it too" - that is, to get rid of our anxiety and be a good speaker. And that is why this book devotes a good bit of attention to improving your speeches. We will assume, however, that reducing the anxiety must come first. It doesn't do much good to know how to give an excellent speech if you are afraid to give one.

Another popular therapy approach, called systematic desensitization, deals directly with the physical component of speech anxiety. This approach involves training in muscle relaxation techniques, coupled with visual imagery of public-speaking situations. The target is to reach a state of physical relaxation while imagining oneself giving a speech. The assumption is that one cannot be psychologically anxious while being physically relaxed. Typically, the technique begins with the mental image of an event fairly remote from one's own speech (such as imagining being in the audience for someone else's speech). Once relaxation is achieved with that image, the relaxation process is repeated for graduated images. The finale is staying relaxed while visualizing yourself giving a speech. Although this approach is reported to be successful with many speakers, it is not the approach we will use. That doesn't mean that we will ignore the physical component of speech anxiety. We will just deal with it in different ways.

Another popular treatment approach, rational emotive therapy, is aimed at the mental interpretations of speech anxiety. In particular, it attempts to get the anxious speaker to realize that many of the accompanying "fears" are irrational. Once speakers attempt to articulate what it is that they are afraid of, a trained objective outsider can point out logical flaws in the corresponding reasoning, and can help the speaker toward a more realistic and less fear-oriented view of the anxiety. As a simple example, students of my public-speaking courses often report that their object of fear is the grade they are to receive on the impending speech. If this were true, then my offer to leave the room and allow the speech to remain ungraded would eliminate the anxiety. It doesn't, of course (since the fear of audience evaluation remains), and out the window goes one myth about the speaker's object of fear. More typically, speakers will articulate irrational overgeneralizations ("I never speak well") or self-fulfilling prophecies ("I'm going to bore them to death"). Rational emotive therapy replaces such statements with more positive and reasonable ones ("I can explain my point of view to friends, so I should be able to do so with this audience," or "Since this information is so interesting to me, I should be able to make it interesting to others"). Rational emotive therapy is not the primary technique employed in this book, but we will borrow some of its strategies. Throughout the book, your irrational views of what is likely to happen to you during a speech will be replaced with more realistic and less anxiety-ridden views and knowledge.


Having discussed therapy techniques that we won't be using, let me introduce the approach that we will be using. I emphasize, introduce. I'll describe what the approach tries to do, but this isn't where we're going to try to do it.

By far the most successful technique I have encountered focuses on the initial component of the speech anxiety - the performance orientation. The premise is that if a performance-oriented view of public speaking is what initiates the entire cycle in the first place, then changing that view should dramatically reduce the speech anxiety. This approach operates by persuading the speaker that the goals, attitudes, and behaviors that make for effective public speaking are in fact more like those of ordinary communication encounters than of public performances. This view happens to be entirely consistent with contemporary instruction in public speaking, by the way. Once an individual genuinely approaches a speech as a communication task rather than a performance, it becomes more closely associated with daily communication episodes than with past anxiety-ridden performance experiences. Speech anxiety almost always subsides, and the speech almost always improves.

As a simple example, notice that true performances - plays, musical recitals, tap-dance routines, and so forth - usually present memorized material. When we hear a speech that sounds memorized, however, we usually don't like it. By the same token, anyone who has experienced a memory block during a performance understands one reason why true performance produces anxiety. Thus, the reason that speakers are routinely advised not to memorize speeches is that memorization both increases anxiety and produces an artificial speaking style.

Notice also that one of the goals of a "performance" is to receive from the audience a positive evaluation of one's performance skills. When this impending evaluation becomes a focus of attention, anxiety usually follows. An alternative is to focus instead on more practical goals and more realistic audience responses. Foe example, a jazz combo of which I am a member of recently played its debut "performance". As we assembled our instruments and equipment, the dominant topics of conversation was the stage fright being experienced by most of the members. But the anxiety was almost totally and immediately eliminated by suggesting that our real goal was not to get applause, but for the audience to have fun. And the audience would probably have fun if we had fun, so we should just stop worrying and have some fun playing our music. A nice fringe benefit was that this not only eliminated the anxiety, but in turn improved our music, I think. And it is a safe assumption that whatever "mistakes" we made were easily ignored or forgiven by the audience as long as they were having fun with the music.

The analogy for most speeches would be to recognize that the true goal is for the audience to understand the speaker's information and point of view. Thus, the main thing the speaker needs to do in speech is simply to explain the various points clearly. It helps to recognize that, unlike our school classmates who counted the number of times we said "uh" during our book reports, the typical speech audience is more interested in hearing what we have to say than in evaluating our performance skills.

To put it another way, the preferred alternative to the "performance orientation" is a "communication orientation." This alternate view assumes that a "good speech" is one that achieves its primary communicative purpose - the audience's information gain, attitude change, or whatever. I am reminded, for example, of a high-school valedictory address I heard a few years ago in which the speaker employed considerable oratorical flair and embellishment - fancy language, dramatic shifts in volume, practiced gestures, and so forth. It was truly spectacular. When afterward I asked another audience member her thoughts on what the young man had said, her reply was, "I really didn't understand what he said, but it certainly was a good speech, wasn't it?" The performance orientation might answer "yes," but a communication orientation would reply "no." That is, if the speaker's ideas were not received or understood by the audience, then the speech failed - no matter how eloquent the speaker might otherwise have been.

By the same token, when a speaker accomplishes the goal of sharing the intended message with the audience, then the speech is successful, regardless of how unpolished the speaker might appear upon closer inspection. Polish and eloquence have their virtues, certainly, but substance and communicative clarity are much more worthy primary objectives for the speaker. They are also less anxiety arousing.

Ironically, though, discarding the performance orientation in favor of a communication orientation actually improves the speaker as a speaker. That is to say, many of the aspects of "performance" with which the anxious speaker is most concerned - gestures, vocal inflection, facial expression, and so forth - are in fact greatly improved by abandoning the performance orientation. Most notably, high anxiety speakers, as part of their performance orientation, are almost invariably worried about their style of delivery. Notice, however, that by far the most important quality of a speaker's delivery is directness - the audience's impression that they are truly being spoken with (rather than spoken at). We have all been members of audiences in which the speaker appeared to be delivering a soliloquy in some sort of far-removed oblivion. We have also been in audiences when the speaker seemed to be truly "relating" - talking directly with us and with every other individual present. Almost always, the speaker's attitude in the former situation is one of performing, and the accompanying behaviors are unnatural, artificial, and phony. And almost always, the attitude in the latter situation is one of genuine communication, accompanied by behaviors that are spontaneously natural and familiar.

For true performances - piano recitals, public soliloquies, and so forth - one is expected to have unusual behavioral skills, and to show them off. For communication, we may rely on more ordinary and natural behaviors, and certainly do not need to show them off. The gestures, vocal inflections, facial expressions, and so forth preferred in speeches are basically the same as those employed in the speaker's everyday conversation, so the basic skills are already in the speaker's repertoire.

The idea that public speaking is more like conversation than like performance is sometimes difficult to accept by performance-oriented speakers, but consider this: There are only two primary differences between what you do when you give a speech. In a speech, 1) you talk longer before your "turn" is up, and 2) you get to take more time planning, organizing, and clarifying your thoughts before you speak. The advance planning is the hard part; but once that is accomplished, the actual speech presentation is the easy part.

There is one more difference between conversing and public speaking, of course. In speeches you get to share your ideas with more people at once. It is not the size of the audience that determines whether the encounter is viewed as performance or communication, however. An exercise I have used in speech-anxiety seminars demonstrates the point: As the speaker approaches the podium, the instructor temporarily dismisses the audience, but stays to initiate a "one-way conversation" with the speaker. Basically, the speaker's instructions are to forget about giving "a speech" to an audience, and instead simply "talk" spontaneously to the instructor, using the speech-outline notes only as an organizational guide. In this one-to-one relationship the speaker will feel rather silly orating or performing, so a natural conversational directness - complete with conversational language, inflection, gestures, and so forth - quickly develops. The speaker then is instructed to maintain the conversational style while an assistant has the audience gradually return, a few at a time, so that all are present by the end of the talking. The question, of course, is at what point did the "talking" become a "speech?" Ideally, and usually, the speaker will have maintained the conversational directness, attitudinally and behaviorally, throughout. If not, then the transition from "talk" to "speech" is invariably identified by the audience as the point at which naturalness and effectiveness began to decrease, and by the speaker as the point at which anxiety began to increase. Thus, it is not the size of the audience that makes a speech a performance, but rather the speaker's goals, attitudes, and behaviors.


There are a couple of good reasons why I prefer to gear speech-anxiety treatment toward replacing the performance orientation with a communication orientation. First, it makes sense that if the entire speech-anxiety cycle is set into motion by the performance orientation, then getting rid of that orientation would get rid of the anxiety. And if substituting the communication orientation improves the speech, then all the more reason to focus there. Second, it's not just a matter of logic or theory. I have seen hundreds of cases in which this approach has been followed by dramatically reduced anxiety and by dramatically improved speeches. Third, there is impressive scientific evidence that this approach works very effectively. For example, a study was conducted at the University of California, Davis, to compare certain leading approaches to anxiety reduction. High-speech-anxiety individuals were randomly assigned to one of four groups. One was a control group that received no treatment (until after the study was completed), and a second group read a popular book on stage fright. A third group received systematic-desensitization therapy of the sort we discussed earlier, and the fourth group simply read the first three chapters of a draft version of this book. The first two groups experienced no appreciable change in anxiety. The anxiety of the people in the systematic-desensitization group dropped from High to Moderately High. But the anxiety of those who simply read this book dropped more than twice that much - from High to Moderately Low.

So there are good reasons to focus our attention on replacing the performance orientation with a communication orientation. But this doesn't mean that attention to the other components of anxiety is not worthwhile. In fact, since the various parts tend to go hand in hand, it makes sense that any therapy aimed at one phase of the anxiety would do well to pay a fair amount of attention to the others. Thus, while we will concentrate on replacing the performance orientation, we will not ignore the other components of speech anxiety - the physical arousal, and the irrational fears and interpretations. What we will end up with is a very complete treatment for speech anxiety.

Sometimes the complete treatment isn't even necessary. For example, many of the people I counsel can easily replace their performance-oriented misconceptions with a new communication-oriented view, and they experience a tremendous reduction in anxiety almost immediately. Let me relate a case in point - that of a young business man I met on a ski lift one day. After I mentioned during our initial "small talk" that I was a communications professor, he told me that he experienced "really bad stage fright" about public speaking. In the next fifteen minutes or so, I told him about the importance of approaching speeches as communication events instead of performances. There was only enough time to cover some of the general points I've made in the few preceding pages of this chapter before we exchanged business cards, hopped off the lift, and skied off in different directions. That was the last I saw of him, but I received a most satisfying note a few days later about his having successfully delivered a very important speech without appreciable anxiety. The note expressed his pleasure and surprise at having been able to conquer his life-long speech anxiety after such a short conversation on a ski lift, saying, "It's a miracle that just thinking about getting my points across instead of 'snowing' everybody could make such a difference."

Sometimes it's that easy. Often it's almost that easy. The point is that while I don't usually do counseling in fifteen minutes, or on ski lifts, my approach always begins with the need to change the performance orientation. Likewise, that will be the focus of this book. Some people have an easy time accepting the orientation shift. If you are one of those, you probably feel at least a little better already, and will probably feel completely satisfied well before you finish the book. Other people are more reluctant to accept the orientation shift. In those cases, my treatment goes into certain other areas. So does this book.

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