Dear Doctor George...

I'm a twenty-two year old guy taking Speech as my major. The reason I am writing is that I am always anxious when I have to go in front of the class and give a prepared speech. It's not that way elsewhere, like running meetings at work, and it's not that I feel unnaturally afraid, but my voice and body language shows that I am still anxious. This irritates me because there is no logical reason to feel anxious. If I make a fool out of myself, what would it matter in a month or a year? Nothing, but I am still anxious.

Honestly, I am not expecting you to be able to solve this problem for me, but I am hoping to at least get an outside opinion that may change my perspective so I that can solve it myself.

Thank you very much!

... Anxious Public Speaker




Dear Anxious Public Speaker...

Many, if not most, people have a fear of speaking in public. Facing an audience to give a toast at a wedding or a friend's birthday can create a racing heart, sweaty palms, cotton-mouth, and the anxiety that our minds will go blank and we'll embarrass ourselves. This experience is so common that it may be an instinctual, such as fear of spiders, snakes and heights. These fears may have evolved to ensure our survival. As humans our survival depends on social relationships with other people. Thus we have a natural need to be accepted by the group.

You mentioned being able to run meetings at work and it seems likely that you are comfortable in one-on-one conversations, as well. It's worth noting that we're used to receiving verbal and visual feedback in personal exchanges. That's easily available in conversations and small meetings, but that's not possible while talking to a group. It's thus natural that the lack of feedback is causing discomfort. Asking the group a question or telling a joke, at the outset and throughout, might provide the feedback you need to feel more comfortable.

Many of our hang-ups come from early education. We were forced to give oral reports in school on topics we didn't care about to people who cared even less. It was more interesting to laugh and make fun of the other speaker (i.e., victim) than to hear another boring and uninspired report on Christopher Columbus. As opposed to when we were younger, now the people in the audience are usually choosing to be there and want to hear what we have to say.

Our anxious physical responses should be considered Pavlovian to some extent. In the same way that we might salivate whenever we see food, we also have conditioned responses for speaking, acting, playing sports, etc. We assume that professionals don't face these problems but that's simply not true (as in athletes or actors throwing up before a game or before appearing on stage). When we recognize the physical response as being habitual, and not portending an awful result, we can relax and not take the anxious sensations so seriously.

It's not unreasonable to express our concerns in front of a group so long as we don't burden them with it. For instance, "I'll try to not bore you," is fine to say if we think our topic might be boring. Likewise: "If this is getting too boring, just pass out in the aisle and I'll take the hint." These sort of interactions can help us find a common ground between ourselves and our audience, as can asking questions such as "How many of you are bored by speeches?" This would also inject a little humor into your talk and laughing relaxes people.

You asked why it should matter to you if you fail, since it is something that would be forgotten after a month or longer. It sounds as though you're thinking you should not be afraid. However, your fear shows how much you care about doing well. Doctor George mentions this because while it is often helpful to understand our feelings, it is never a good idea to discount them.

Fear can feel like an impenetrable wall, but often we find that if we just go ahead, despite (but not discounting) our fear, then we can walk through that wall. So, rather than try to "solve" the problem, just proceed anyhow.

   Doctor George