Tackling the Public Speaking Fear

Photo by Maddie Klebe

Speech time. Notes, check. Nice outfit, check. Sweaty palms, shaky voice and loss of breath, check. Speaking can quickly instill anxiety in people of all ages with seemingly no solution. Two Penn State professors explain the cause behind speech anxiety and offer advice on soothing the pain that is public speaking.

“Typically, (public speaking) is the number one fear amongst Americans and death is number two,” says Dr. Peter Miraldi, a Communications Arts and Sciences lecturer. “The old joke is that at a funeral, most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.”

Miraldi teaches public speaking with a focus on courses geared toward students with speech anxiety, which is something he says he experienced first-hand in college.

“My first public speaking experience in college… I was a little overconfident,” Miraldi says. “So I didn’t prepare as much.”

Miraldi’s professor at the time told the class that not making eye contact would result in a C grade.

“As soon as I saw a hundred eyes staring at me, I froze up,” he says. “I put my head down and mumbled through my speech.”

This is the story Miraldi tells his classes each semester, pushing the fact that fear of public speaking is common and can’t be totally rid of.

“Communication anxiety is really something everyone has,” he says. “The key is to learn to deal with that public speaking anxiety and use it to your advantage.”

Miraldi says that typically, the nerves are the worst in the beginning. When you stand in front of a crowd, instinct kicks in and so do the symptoms. He says he has personally experienced a dry throat and blanking out.

“Think about how unnatural it is to stare at someone,” he says. “The only time you see that in nature is when the wolves are surrounding their prey.”

Staring is a form of aggression, and Miraldi says that when you have an altercation, even if you know you truly won’t be attacked, your instinct kicks in and the body goes into a fight or flight mechanism.

“Physiologically, you’re going to start pumping blood and the adrenaline kicks in,” he says. “The blood goes to your legs and arms… digestion shuts down and your mouth doesn’t produce saliva.”

The blood travels away from the head and to places necessary for fighting, and according to Miraldi, sweating occurs because your body is preparing to cool itself from running away.

“Think about this as an explanation for all of those symptoms we experience with communication anxiety,” he says. “This is a natural response.”

Miraldi says there may be some differences between people on how much is physiological and how much stems from environment, but regardless, everyone has a degree of communication anxiety.

So now, how do you take care of it?

“First, take comfort in the fact that it’s normal,” Miraldi says. “Nothing is wrong with you for shaking or sweating or getting nervous.”

Suppressing it is not the solution, and Miraldi says locking up and trying to fight it may result in shutting down and feeling light-headed.

“This might sound strange, but use it to your advantage,” Miraldi says. “Use it as energy.”

Miraldi says he argues that if you’re nervous, that means you care. If there’s a lot on the line, nerves kick in because more is at stake. With public speaking, he says to remind yourself that the audience wants you to succeed.

“If the blood is in my arms and legs, I’m going to move my hands around or walk around,” he says. “In essence, it will help me feel better as a speaker and it’s better for the audience.”

Another component to successful public speaking is practice, especially practicing in the same room the speech will be delivered. That way, Miraldi says, it won’t be so unfamiliar.

Meditation, deep breathing, getting enough sleep and exercise, and things to lower your blood pressure also help. Miraldi says not to be late or run to your speech because then nerves will kick in on top of high blood pressure and make the resulting symptoms worse.

“You have to be your own coach,” Miraldi says. “Even during your speech give yourself a little pep talk and don’t focus on the negative.”

Sometimes, fear of public speaking isn’t so public. Communications Arts and Sciences Lecturer Lori Schneider says anxiety stems from one-on-one communication, group communication and meeting communication as well.

“Some people have issues talking with people,” Schneider says. “Often, it has to do with the status of people involved.”

A physiological symptom recognizable in closer speech is blushing of the face, neck and chest. Schneider says she advises wearing a scarf to hide the blush and to remove it as you become more confident with speaking.

Schneider says some Penn State classes focus on solving issues with speaking to peers or people of differing social statuses. She advises students to set goals and do self-evaluations that allow them to tackle those goals by understanding exactly what needs improvement.

She also says a great resource to take advantage of is the Undergraduate Speaking Center located in the basement of Sparks building.

“Any major can go,” she says. “There’s people that have been trained that can help you with your topic, how to get organized, help you do your research, and sound smarter,

“Your word choices can make you sound smarter and more prepared, and you also want to adapt your examples to the audience,” Schneider says.

And like Miraldi, Schneider stresses the importance of practice.

“Practice, practice and then practice some more,” she says. “Be really familiar with the audience and try to know something about your audience beforehand.”


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