Considering Speech Anxiety
Michael P. Mooney
This paper is a consideration of the problem of speech apprehension. The problem itself, along with some of the most common causes of anxiety that are associated with public speaking will be explored. In addition, thought is given to steps that may reduce these fears and increase competence.
Surveys indicate that one of the greatest fears Americans face is the issue of public speaking (Cunningham, Lefkoe, & Sechrest, 2006). This phobia can hinder quality of life, result in health issues, and prohibit promotions and career paths. In addition , most colleges in America require students to pass a public speaking class (or expect the equivalent) in order to graduate (Pearson, DeWitt, Child, Kahl, & Dandamudi, 2007). This fear is not like other phobias. Many may fear spiders (arachnophobia), small spaces (claustrophobia), firearms, and heights (acrophobia), but these things can realistically be avoided. Contrarily, whether leading an interest related small group, project managing, or being honored with an award, public speaking is bound to be encountered throughout the course of life. Therefore, finding ways to overcome, or at least cope with this phobia is paramount to not hindering success.
Glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, is typically known as stage fright, speech anxiety, or communication apprehension (CA). Pearson et al. (2007) reports CA as “an individual’s level of fear or anxiety associated with real or anticipated communication with another person or persons” (p. 160). This definition covers fear on the levels of interpersonal relations (such as one-on-one personal interaction), as well as public addresses. Experienced stage fright is described as causing profound discomfort, loss of thought, weakness in knees, increased heart rate, profuse sweating, and physical chills. In addition, researchers measure the symptoms of speech anxiety in two classes: high-speech-anxious, and low-speech-anxious. High-speech-anxious people are more threatened by the notion of public speaking, expect to perform negatively, and experience greater frustration than low-speech-anxious people (Witt, Brown, Roberts, Weisel, Sawyer, & Behnke, 2006).
Trait or State
There is much debate over the question of whether CA is a state of being, or an inherited trait. Those who hold the state position believe that personal perceptions of external stimuli results in the behavior of the CA condition. The emphasis of this position is upon external factors. In contrast, proponents of the trait perspective believe that CA is a biologically inherited characteristic. This position is highly controversial. At best, research has shown an association between genetics and CA (Pearson et al. 2007). Much of the disagreement seems to come from the implications of the two position’s fundamental arguments. State proponents are inclined to believe that this phobia can be overcome. They argue that CA is less susceptible to therapeutic conditioning if it is a trait. From a theoretical perspective, researchers may have discovered a common ground for both positions. Witt et al. (2006) reports, “trait anxiety measures how people generally feel across situations and time periods, and state anxiety is defined as the anxiety people feel in a particular situation and at a particular time” (p. 88).
Causes of Speech Apprehension
Next it seems appropriate to consider the causes of CA. Pribyl, Keaten, and Sakamoto (2001) report a developed list of situations that often result in anxiety: “novelty, unfamiliarity, formality, subordinate status, conspicuousness, degree of attention from others, and dissimilarity” (p. 149). In the context of speech apprehension, novelty is defined as a lack of association with speech material. Unfamiliarity speaks of a lack of acquaintance with the audience. Formality is the measure of order and rules present during the presentation. Subordinate status brings attention to the potentiality of unfavorable evaluations by superiors. Conspicuousness refers to the solitary efforts of the speaker during speech delivery. Like subordinate status, degree of attention from others deals with the fear of unfavorable evaluations by the audience in general. Dissimilarity refers to the uncertainty of the audience’s position toward the topic of the presentation (Pribyl et al. 2001).
The What if Question
Each of the before listed seem to be regular issues of concern for people suffering with public speaking anxiety (whether they are aware of them or not). Additionally, each of the listed have one dominate theme; they manifest fear through the “what if” question. The afflicted are plagued by the question of what if during a speech: they mispronounce a word, are disliked by the audience, face resistance by opposing opinions etc. Cunningham et al. (2006) reports:
The fear of public speaking is typically caused by (a) specific beliefs, such as ‘Mistakes and failure are bad’ and ‘If I make a mistake, I’ll be rejected’ and (b) conditioning, such as automatically experiencing fear whenever one is, or perceives oneself to be, in a position to be criticized or judged (183).
Therefore, it seems that CA is rooted in the fear of rejection (generally speaking). People ultimately want to be accepted and appreciated. The concept of perfection (the lack of mistakes) seems to be associated with acceptance. Therefore, the reasoning is that all perfect people will be accepted, and that people who make mistakes are unacceptable. This seems to be the framework of “specific beliefs” in the above referenced Cunningham (2006) report.
Four Stages of Competence
There are a number of steps that can be taken to eliminate CA, or at lease alleviate some of the anxiety associated with it. From a state perspective of CA, the solution to the problem is to acknowledge it, then modify behavior to a position of competence. As referenced by White (2007), there are four stages of competence: “Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence Stage 3: Conscious Competence Stage 4: Unconscious Competence” (p. 180). People desiring to overcome CA should realize their present state. Stage one is not likely a cause of anxiety because it is a place of ignorance. Stage two seems to be the most acknowledged because generally the anxiety causing fear is a result of the desire to avoid conscious incompetence. The goal from this point is to move to stage three where the speaker can consciously control the projection of their competence. In time this level will transition to unconscious competence; the most natural state of being (Decker, n.d.) Achieving this level will require some forethought.
Preparing for a public oration is essential to the projection of competence. By preparing, orators can organize their material, and be more in control of what it is they intend to say. Occasionally, there are situations where people are urged to present impromptu presentations. Even then, the speakers who have anticipated an invitation to speak has somewhat prepared; thereby, reducing nervousness and increasing persuasiveness (Penrose, Rasberry, & Myers, 2008).
The idea of practicing may seem obvious, yet it is often overlooked. Practicing will overcome the unfamiliarity element that causes CA, referenced earlier by Pribyl et al. (2001). There are several ways to rehearse speeches: alone with notes, in front of a mirror, in front of a friend or small group. The benefits of using a mirror are invaluable. This technique provides instant feedback and makes the speakers aware of their nonverbal cues and body language. Research indicates that students who practiced their speeches before a mirror scored higher on evaluations, and those who practiced before an audience scored even higher (Smith and Frymier, 2006).
There is an old Hebrew proverb that says, a person is as they think in their heart (Pro 23:7). If people are feeling inadequate or frightened, entertaining these thoughts will only result in self-fulfilling prophecies. When people are feeling anxious about giving a speech, they should counter these thoughts with positive thoughts of affirmation. They should remember that their self worth is not measured by their ability to deliver a speech, and that mistakes are permissible because everyone makes them. Witt et al. (2006) reports:
Hu and Romans-Kroll (1995) found that trait-anxious students who practiced a positive thinking exercise before delivering speeches experienced less anxiety and a lower heart rate than those using negative or neutral thinking statements. Perhaps positive-thinking exercises before delivering a speech could decrease the occurrence or intensity of gastrointestinal sensations in trait-anxious speakers and, thereby, lead to a more favorable speaking experience. Prespeaking exercises, therefore, actually may offer the greatest promise for reducing anxiety symptoms during the speech performance itself (p. 98).
Visualization of Achievement
It is amazing what people can achieve if they see themselves do it first in their mind’s eye. Visualization is the process of a speaker positively thinking their way through the entire event that they anticipate. It is a proven method in reducing speech anxiety and is as effective as many other common approaches such as emotive therapy and systematic desensitization (Ayres, 1988). In doing so, it is helpful to note that there are four landmarks in the process of a speech presentation. The first is the time just before the speech when the speaker is filled with expectation. Next there is the moment of engagement that takes place with the speaker opening words. Third, there is the summary stage in the closing remarks of the presentation. Lastly there is the dismissal when everyone is free to move about and socialize (Witt, et al. 2006). People suffering from CA should carefully visualize themselves acting out each of these steps successfully. They should see the anticipation stage, feel the intensity of the moment, then see themselves relaxing as they take a sip of water. Then they should see themselves addressing the audience with confidence, and take a breath of relief as they have passed this milestone. Next, they should see themselves charismatically calling the audience to action as they give their well rehearsed closing remarks. Finally, they should see the audience applauding the good job that they did in giving the presentation, along with people wanting to congratulate them afterwards.
This process is designed to replace the negative visions that the speakers have already rehearsed in their minds. People suffering from CA have come to believe that they are not good at giving speeches. They have accepted this position as the truth, instead of potentially a truth. The problem is that people’s supposed evidence for believing negativity about themselves is usually inconsistent with the real reasons for which they believe it. Many claim that they are failures at public oration because of their negative interpretations of the circumstances of previous experiences. However, this is a subjective perceptual effect, and not necessarily the cause. As they continue to believe these things about themselves, they are bound to manifest their own self-expectations of failure (Cunningham et al. 2006).
People can fear public speaking so much so that it is debilitating to their lives. This fear is generally referred to as stage fright, speech anxiety, or communication apprehension (CA). Many still debate over whether CA is a state of being, or a trait of birth. There are a number of factors that manifest CA, and all of them have fear as a common theme. This fear can be overcome by the increase of competence. Steps that may be taken to generate this increase are: preparation, practice, positive thinking, and visualization.