If you feel fear, anxiety, or discomfort when confronted with the task of being in front of an audience, you are not alone. National polls consistently show that public speaking is among Americans’ top fears (Bodie, 2010). Yet, this is a fear that many people must face regularly; and you will need to face it in this course. Effectively managing nervousness has many positive effects on your performance such as fewer feelings of anxiety on the inside and a more relaxed and confident delivery on the outside. Although speech/performance anxiety (also known as stage fright) is natural and normal, it can interfere with verbal and nonverbal delivery, which makes a presentation less effective. In this chapter, we will explore causes of presentation anxiety, ways to address it, and best practices of vocal and physical delivery.
Sources of Speaking Anxiety
Aside from the self-reported data in national surveys that rank the fear of public speaking high for Americans, decades of research conducted by communication scholars shows that communication apprehension is common among college students (Priem & Solomon, 2009). Communication apprehension (CA) is fear or anxiety experienced by a person due to real or perceived communication with another person or persons. CA is a more general term that includes multiple forms of communication, not just public speaking. CA can be further broken down into two categories. “Trait CA” refers to a general tendency to experience anxiety related to communication, in essence incorporating it into a person’s personality. “State CA” refers to anxiety related to communication that occurs in a particular situation and time (Bodie, 2010). Of college students, 15 to 20 percent experience high trait CA, meaning they are generally anxious about communication. Seventy percent of college students experience some trait CA, which means that addressing communication anxiety in a class like the one you’re taking now stands to benefit most students (Priem & Solomon, 2009).
Whether CA is a personal trait or not, we all occasionally experience state CA. Think about the jitters you get before a first date, a job interview, or the first day of school. The novelty or uncertainty of some situations is a common trigger for communication anxiety, and public speaking is a situation that is uncertain for many. This course, in particular is quite novel for most students and, therefore, can sometimes result in uncertainty and anxiety.
Public speaking or performance anxiety is a type of CA that produces physiological, cognitive, and behavioral reactions in people when faced with a real or imagined presentation in front of others (Bodie, 2010). Physiological responses to this anxiety include increased heart rate, flushing of the skin or face, and sweaty palms, among other things. These reactions are the result of natural chemical processes in the human body. The fight or flight instinct helped early humans survive threatening situations. When faced with a ferocious saber-toothed tiger, for example, the body released adrenaline, cortisol, and other hormones that increased heart rate and blood pressure to get more energy to the brain, organs, and muscles in order to respond to the threat. We can be thankful for this evolutionary advantage, but our physiology hasn’t caught up with our new ways of life. Our bodies don’t distinguish between the causes of stressful situations, so facing down an audience releases the same hormones as facing down a wild beast.
Cognitive reactions to presentation anxiety often include intrusive thoughts that can increase anxiety: “People are judging me,” “I’m not going to do well,” and “I’m going to forget what to say.” These thoughts are reactions to the physiological changes in the body but also bring in the social/public aspect of public presentation in which speakers fear being negatively judged or evaluated because of their anxiety. The physiological and cognitive responses to anxiety lead to behavioral changes. All these thoughts may lead someone to stop a presentation or performance and return to their seat or leave the classroom. Anticipating these reactions can also lead to avoidance behavior where people intentionally avoid situations where they will have to present in front of an audience.
Addressing Presentation Anxiety
While we can’t stop the innate physiological reactions related to anxiety from occurring, we do have some control over how we cognitively process them and the behaviors that result. Research on public speaking anxiety has focused on three key ways to address it: systematic desensitization, cognitive restructuring, and skills training (Bodie, 2010).
Although systematic desensitization may sound like something that would be done to you while strapped down in the basement of a scary hospital, it actually refers to the fact that we become less anxious about something when we are exposed to it more often (Bodie, 2010). As was mentioned earlier, the novelty and uncertainty of public speaking is a source for many people’s anxiety. So, becoming more familiar with public presentation by doing it more often can logically reduce the novelty and uncertainty of it.
Systematic desensitization can result from imagined or real exposure to anxiety-inducing scenarios. In some cases, an instructor leads a person through a series of relaxation techniques. Once relaxed, the person is asked to imagine a series of scenarios including speech preparation and speech delivery. This is something you could also try to do on your own before performing. Imagine yourself going through the process of preparing and practicing an oral interp performance, then delivering it, then returning to your seat. Aside from this imagined exposure to performance situations, taking a course like this one is a great way to directly engage in systematic desensitization. Almost all of my students report that they have less performance anxiety at the end of a semester than when they started, which is at least partially due to the fact they were forced to engage with it more than they would have done if they weren’t taking the class.
You will have ample opportunities to engage in activities and games and practice performances in this course before you present one for a grade, so take advantage of as many of these as you can.
Cognitive restructuring entails changing the way we think about something. A first step in restructuring how we deal with performance anxiety is to cognitively process through our fears to realize that many of the thoughts associated with stage fright are irrational (Allen, Hunter & Donohue, 2009). For example, people report a fear of public speaking over a fear of snakes, heights, financial ruin, or even death. It’s irrational to think that the consequences of giving a presentation in public are more calamitous than getting bitten by a rattlesnake, falling off a building, or dying. People also fear being embarrassed because they mess up or are evaluated negatively. Well, one cannot literally die from embarrassment, and in reality, audiences are very forgiving and overlook or don’t even notice many errors that we, as performers, may dwell on. Once we realize that the potential negative consequences of giving a presentation are not as dire as we think they are, we can move on to other cognitive restructuring strategies.
Positive visualization is another way to engage in cognitive restructuring. Speaking anxiety often leads people to view their own presentations negatively, even if their performances were good. They’re also likely to set up negative self-fulfilling prophecies that will hinder their performance in future presentations. To effectively use positive visualization, it’s best to engage first in some relaxation exercises such as deep breathing or stretching, which we will discuss more later, and then play through vivid images in your mind of giving a successful performance. This should be done a few times before giving the actual performance. Students sometimes question the power of positive visualization, thinking that it sounds corny. Ask an Olympic diver what his or her coach says to do before jumping off the diving board and the answer will probably be “Coach says to imagine completing a perfect 10 dive.” Likewise, a Marine sharpshooter would likely say his commanding officer says to imagine hitting the target before pulling the trigger. In both instances, positive visualization is being used in high-stakes situations. If it’s good enough for Olympic athletes and snipers, it’s good enough for oral interpers.
Skills training is a strategy for managing presentation anxiety that focuses on learning skills that will improve specific presentation behaviors. These skills may relate to any part of the oral interp process: literature selection, theme/message development, organization of multiple texts, delivery, and self-evaluation. Like systematic desensitization, skills training makes the presentation process more familiar for a performer, which lessens uncertainty. In addition, targeting specific areas and then improving on them builds more confidence which can, in turn, lead to more improvement.
Feedback is important to initiate and maintain this positive cycle of improvement. You can use the constructive criticism that you get from your instructor and peers in this class to target specific areas of improvement. Self-evaluation is also an important part of skills training. Make sure to evaluate yourself within the context of your assignment and the expectations for the performance. Don’t get sidetracked by a small delivery error if the expectations for content far outweigh the expectations for delivery. Combine your self-evaluation with the feedback from your instructor and/or peers to set specific and measurable goals and then assess whether you meet them in subsequent performances. Once you achieve a goal, mark it off your list, and use it as a confidence booster. If you don’t achieve a goal, figure out why and adjust your strategies to try to meet it in the future.
We will slowly build skills for creating oral interpretation performances in this course. You will get chances in class to play with each step in the process in our classroom’s low-stakes environment before you combine all skills for a comprehensive, graded performance.
WANT to Perform
Oral interpretation of literature is an artful and creative way for you to share literature and messages that are important to you with others. When you’ve gone through the work of finding literary texts, analyzed them, and arranged them into a program, it would be a shame to let that creation sit in your backpack. Tap into the motivation that drew you to create that work and realize the power of sharing it with others. Your creation can impact, affect, and influence others. It’s amazing how we can break through nerves when we view our goals as important.
Try not to worry too much about being new to this art form. Audiences in this beginning course are generally very forgiving, supportive, and most feel the same anxiety you are feeling. If we can simply find the desire to perform, that can propel us forward. Performance skills can be learned, practiced, and perfected, and the number one thing you need to do to be a successful oral interp performer is to want to be there. If you feel good about the literary texts you choose for a performance, and if you find that desire to share them with your audience, be patient with yourself. The performance skills will come, and you will find ways to successfully manage the anxiety you initially feel.
Procrastination increases anxiety, particularly in contexts with which we are unfamiliar. You can mitigate this uneasiness by preparing your interpretation performances well in advance. This gives you time to ask your instructor if you have questions during the construction process. It gives you time to practice and gain muscle memory for movements and particular vocalizations. Do not wait until the night before a performance is due to begin putting it together or practicing it, or you surely find your performance anxiety levels increase. You may find it helpful to your nerves to have a literature program organized and ready for rehearsal at least a week in advance.
You will find that some performance day routines will also help ease the jitters. Get a good night’s sleep the night before and go for a little run that morning or do some stretching to get your heart pumping. Be sure to eat an hour or two before you perform to give you energy. Wear something that gives you confidence. Do something that relaxes you before you head to your performance space, like sip a cup of orange tea or take a long shower. The routine of doing something creates a pattern in our minds and bodies that makes it easier to relax and prepare for the task at hand.
Arrive early on your performance day, find your seat, and get comfortable. Chat with others around you and try to click in with the creative energy of the room. This work may seem unimportant to the overall product that is your performance, but it can go a long way to helping you perform your best on that day.
Physical Relaxation Exercises
Suggestions for managing performance anxiety typically address its cognitive and behavioral components while the physical components are left unattended. As we learned earlier, we can’t block these natural and instinctual responses. We can, however, engage in physical relaxation exercises to counteract the general physical signs of anxiety caused by cortisol and adrenaline release, which include increased heart rate, trembling, flushing, high blood pressure, and speech disfluency.
We might compare confronting the physical aspects of public speaking anxiety to chemical warfare. Some breathing and stretching exercises release endorphins, which are your body’s natural antidote to stress hormones. You can release endorphins, slow your heart rate, calm your nerves, and help your focus before performing through just a few deep breaths. Breathing provides a general sense of relaxation and can be done discreetly, even while waiting to speak.
To get the benefits of deep breathing, you must breathe into your diaphragm. The diaphragm is the muscle below your lungs that helps you breathe and stand up straight, which makes it a good muscle for a speaker to exercise. To start, breathe in slowly through your nose, filling the bottom parts of your lungs up with air. While doing this, your belly should pooch out. Hold the breath for three to five full seconds and then let it out slowly through your mouth. After doing this only a few times, many students report that they can feel a flooding of endorphins, which creates a brief “light-headed” feeling. Once you have practiced and are comfortable with the technique, you can do this before you perform, and no one sitting around you will even notice. You might also want to try this technique during other stressful situations. Deep breathing before dealing with an angry customer or loved one, or before taking a test, can help you relax and focus.
Stretching is another way to release endorphins quickly and effectively. Since we use our bodies more expressively in oral interpretation performances than we might in a traditional public speech, stretching can be a very useful pre-performance tool.
Ancient exercise traditions like yoga, tai chi, and Pilates teach the idea that stretching is a key component of having a healthy mind and spirit. In general, exercise is a good stress reliever, but many of us don’t have the time or willpower to do it. We can, however, take time to do some stretching. Obviously, it would be distracting for the surrounding audience if a performer broke into some planking or a tree pose just before his or her performance. However, even simple and discreet stretches can help get the body’s energy moving around, which can make a performer feel more balanced and relaxed. Our blood and our energy/stress tend to pool in our legs, especially when we’re sitting.
The following stretch can help manage the physical manifestations of anxiety while you are waiting to perform. Start with both feet flat on the floor. Raise your back heels off the floor and flex and release your calf muscles. You can flex and release your calves once before putting your heels back down and repeating, or you can flex a few times on each repetition. Doing this three to five times should sufficiently get your blood and energy flowing. Stretching your wrists can also help move energy around in your upper body, since ample time spent typing and using other electronic controllers put a lot of stress on this intersection of muscles, tendons, and bones. Point one hand up at the wrist joint, like you’re waving at someone. Then use your other hand to pull, gently, the hand that’s pointing up back toward your elbow. Stop pulling once you feel some tension. Hold the hand there for a few seconds and release. Then point the hand down at the wrist joint like you’re pointing at something on the floor and use the other hand to push the hand back toward your elbow. Again, stop pushing when you feel the tension, hold the stretch for a few seconds, and release. You can often do this stretch discretely as well while waiting to speak.
These physical exercises can work wonders to calm your nerves. Even, closing your eyes for a few seconds can help center you, too. All these techniques can help make your performance experience a good one, and the more you do them, the easier it becomes to control your anxiousness.
Vocal Warm-Up Exercises
Vocal warm-up exercises are a good way to warm up your face and mouth muscles, which can help prevent some of the fluency issues that occur when speaking. Newscasters, singers, and professional speakers use vocal warm-ups. They can also help lighten the mood if done in groups.
The list that follows includes specific words and exercises designed to warm up different muscles and different aspects of your voice. After going through just a few, you should be able to feel the blood circulating in your face muscles more. It’s a surprisingly good workout!
- Purse your lips together and make a motorboat sound. Hold it for ten seconds and repeat. “BBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBB.”
- Clench your teeth and say, “N, N, N, N,” to stretch your cheek muscles.
- Say “Mum” five times and open your mouth and eyes wide each time you say it.
- Say “Puh” five times, making sure to use your diaphragm to enunciate the h.
- Say “Red Rover” ten times, overenunciating each r.
- Say “Wilbur” ten times, overenunciating the w and r.
- Say “Bumblebee” ten times, enunciating each b.
- Say “Red letter, yellow letter” five times, making sure to distinctly pronounce each word.
- Say “Selfish shellfish” five times, making sure to distinctly pronounce each word.
- Say “Unique New York” five times, enunciating the q and k.
You will likely see nerves begin to dissipate once you have taken these pains to warm up your voice and body, just as an athlete would warm up before a game.
Top Ten Ways to Reduce Speaking Anxiety
As you can see in this section, there are many factors that contribute to presentation anxiety, and there are many ways to address it. The following is a list of the top ten ways to reduce presentation anxiety which helps review what we’ve learned:
- Remember, you are not alone. Presentation anxiety is common, so don’t ignore it—confront it.
- Remember, you can’t literally “die of embarrassment.” Audiences are forgiving and understanding.
- Remember, it always feels worse than it looks.
- Take deep breaths and warm up. This will release endorphins, which naturally fight the adrenaline that causes anxiety.
- Look the part. Dress to enhance confidence.
- Channel your nervousness into positive energy and motivation.
- Choose your literature, analyze it, and write your introduction early. Better content = higher confidence.
- Practice and get feedback from a trusted source. (Don’t just practice for your cat.)
- Visualize success through positive thinking.
- Prepare, prepare, prepare! Practice is a performer’s best friend.
Essentially, the best way to work on easing any performance anxiety you feel is to gain practice and experience. Reading about these techniques in a textbook will get you part of the way, but the rest will need to come from embracing the old Nike motto. Remember when you learned how to ride a bike without training wheels as a kid? No one gave you a lecture on which you took notes, and you didn’t watch an instructional video. An adult likely gave you a push down the sidewalk, and you were left to your own devices to gain the balance and coordination to stay upright. With practice and experience and feedback from others, you will gain that confidence with oral interp as well.
Allen, M., John E. Hunter, and William A. Donohue, “Meta-analysis of Self-Report Data on the Effectiveness of Public Speaking Anxiety Treatment Techniques,” Communication Education 38, no. 1 (2009): 54–76.
Bodie, G. D., “A Racing Heart, Rattling Knees, and Ruminative Thoughts: Defining, Explaining, and Treating Public Speaking Anxiety,” Communication Education 59, no. 1 (2010): 70.
Motley, M. T., “COM Therapy,” in Avoiding Communication: Shyness, Reticence, and Communication Apprehension, eds. John A. Daly, James C. McCroskey, Joe Ayres, Tim Hopf, and Debbie M. Ayers Sonandre (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2009), 379–400.
Priem, J. S., and Denise Haunani Solomon, “Comforting Apprehensive Communicators: The Effects of Reappraisal and Distraction on Cortisol Levels among Students in a Public Speaking Class,” Communication Quarterly 57, no. 3 (2009): 260.