Understand Speech Anxiety

Generally speaking,¬†speech anxiety are¬†feelings of nervousness, dread, and concern that people experience before, during, or after public speaking. Academic researchers use the term communication apprehension to describe this condition and define it as “the fear or anxiety associated with real or anticipated communication with others” (Dwyer, 1998, p. 9). Speech anxiety and communication apprehension are terms used interchangeably to describe similar (if not the same)¬†phenomena. According to Brydon¬†and Scott (1987, p. 58) “speech anxiety refers to the feelings of discomfort that people experience before or during speaking in public.” Whereas DeVito (1999, p. 58) describes communication apprehension as a “feeling of fear or anxiety about a situation in which one must communicate,” especially when the communication act takes place in a public forum. Therefore, throughout this primer, the term speech anxiety will be used to refer to both concepts.

More people are afraid of public speaking than anything else. Polls frequently report that public speaking is the top fear of most adult Americans above bankruptcy, dental visits, divorce, and death. Although most people dislike public speaking to one degree or another, it is a necessary skill required by many professions and helpful in almost all business, educational, and social situations. In careers ranging from the legal profession to sales, marketing to engineering, volunteering to teaching, effective public speaking skills are an asset and often a requirement for success. Instead of thinking of public speaking as a punishment, consider it as a meaningful addition to your personal toolbox of skills and abilities. In fact, public speaking has three key advantages: 1) it develops critical thinking skills, 2) encourages creativity, and 3) plays a key role in leadership (McKay, 2000).

It is common for someone experiencing speech anxiety to have physical reaction before, during, and after a speech. Public speaking, from the mere possibility all the way through the speech itself, can trigger one or all of the following reactions:

  • increased breathing
  • flushing
  • dry mouth
  • excessive perspiration
  • rapid heartbeat
  • trembling
  • upset stomach
  • dizziness
  • voice fluctuation
  • excessive nervous energy

Many of these reactions are due to the fight-or-flight response. The fight-or-flight response is an automatic response in our bodies when our minds perceive a real or imagines threat. Furthermore, as the severity of the threat increases, the intensity of the reactions also increase. Therefore, to the extent that a person sees public speaking as a threatening situation, they will experience the fight-or-flight reactions which are seen as anxiety. In order to minimize the anxiety arising from these fight-or-flight reactions, one needs to reduce the threat associated with public speaking. Reducing the threat can be done by preparing strong outlines and practicing over and over again.

Speech anxiety also frequently consists of a psychological reaction. Students in previous public speaking classes here at City Tech report the following psychological reactions:

  • fear of the spotlight
  • fear of failure
  • fear of rejection
  • uncertainty
  • humiliation
  • no¬†control
  • hostile audience
  • forgetting speech
  • looking nervous

Now that some time has been spent understanding speech anxiety, the next section will address how to manage the anxiety so that it can be refocused into something useful.

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