Public speaking anxiety 

I had a friend Esha during my university days who was very lively in the closed circle of friends. She was quite insightful about everything under the sun as evident from the long hours of discussion in the cafeteria.  After a while, I realized that Esha never responded in class, even when she was asked by the teacher. She used to skip almost all the class presentations with lame excuses or performed terribly bad if she had to attend any. Throughout my career, in every class I had more than one friend who had public speaking anxiety. I am sure some of you are also like Esha. Here are ways to deal with public speaking anxiety.

What is public speaking anxiety?

Clevenger (1955) defined public speaking anxiety as,

Any emotional condition in which emotion overcomes intellect to the extent that communication is hampered, either in audience reception or in speaker self-expression, where the immediate objective or stimulus of the emotion is the speech audience situation.

Psychologists often use a fancy term ‘Glossophobia’ to refer to public speaking anxiety or speech anxiety. The term is derived from the combination of two Greek originated words ‘glōssa’, meaning tongue and phobos, meaning fear or dread.

Categories of communication anxiety

We often experience fear in certain situations, with certain types of audience and are perfectly comfortable with facing and talking with others. Why so? Psychologists say communication anxiety can take one of the four forms given below,

  • Trait-like communication anxiety– It is related to personality traits of an individual and is not related to the context or situation as such. Trait like communication anxiety is a relatively enduring, personality type orientation which is evident in almost all contexts.
  • Context dependent communication anxiety– It is obviously evident in particular contexts and situations, while having little or no fear or anxiety about other contexts or circumstances. For example, persons may experience relatively high anxiety or fear about public speaking situations and little or no apprehension about dyadic or small group environments.
  • Audience dependent communication anxiety– Audience-based CA is viewed as “a relatively enduring orientation toward communication with a given person or group of people” (McCroskey). So, the nervousness is not caused by the personality characteristics or due to the context but due to the presence of a certain audience which generates an anxiety inducing situation. For example my friend Esha was nervous in front of teachers and not with us.
  • Situational communication anxiety– the most “statelike” form, is induced in an individual when communicating with another specific person or group at a specific time (McCroskey). A person may feel no anxiety while asking the teacher about course related questions but may feel very high anxiety while talking something personal.

Symptoms of Public Speaking Anxiety

Symptoms of glossophobia include:

  • Emotional symptoms- Intense anxiety prior to, or simply at the thought of having to verbally communicate with any group, excessive self-consciousness, fear that one will act in ways that will embarrass or humiliate himself/herself, fear that others will notice that the person is nervous.
  • Behavioural symptoms- Avoidance of events which focus the group’s attention on individuals in attendance.
  • Physical distress like flushing of the face or blushing, turning pale, shortness of breath, stomach upset, nausea, trembling, racing heart, sweating, hand’s and feel turning cold etc.

Why do we develop public speaking anxiety?

A number of psychological theories are proposed to understand the processes behind public speaking anxiety.

  • The skills deficit approach suggests that anxiety increases in an individual because of a lack of the necessary performance skills to accomplish the goal of the communicative act.
  • Conditioning theory holds that public speaking anxiety is caused perhaps due to some association of it with negative experiences. For example, if one’s recitation in classroom was accompanied by criticism from the teachers in childhood then the person is more likely to develop public speaking anxiety in later life than the others.
  • The cognitive structures position adopted by Leary (1983) assumes that the way people think about themselves in communication situations precipitates the feeling of anxiety.
  • Mandler (1975) has suggested that anxiety arises when an individual cannot identify appropriate actions or responses to given situations (e.g., public speaking). Such a position suggests that some individuals’ schemas are not sufficiently developed to provide “scripts” about how to respond to the oral performance event.
  • McCroskey (1984) has used the concept of ‘Learned helplessness’ to explain public speaking anxiety. Now, what is learned helplessness?  Learned helplessness, or not trying to get out of a negative situation because the past has taught one that he is helpless. For example, if a woman is battered for the first time she protests but with no help then later she will not protest. She has learnt to be helpless. Similarly, individuals experiencing high levels of Public Speaking Anxiety predict that they will perform poorly in the speaking circumstance and are, therefore, anxious about that poor performance and the predicted consequences (e.g. lower grade, ridicule, lower social esteem, etc.).

Common thought patterns of people with Public Speaking Anxiety:

It is consistently found that people with public speaking anxiety have some typical thought patterns like below,

  • The ‘All or Nothing’ Mindset– Things are seen in a black or white scale with no shades of grey. It is extreme craving for perfection, One may think “I need to present the best or no point of presenting at all”.
  • Over generalization– When a single negative event is seen as a never-ending pattern of failure. For example one may think “My last presentation was bad therefore I will always perform bad in presentations”.
  • Jumping to Conclusions– When one concludes negatively with very few or no evidence of it. If people didn’t appreciate your presentation that does not always mean it was bad.
  • Fortune Telling– The tendency to anticipate that things will turn out badly, no matter how much practice or rehearsal is done.

How to deal with Public Speaking Anxiety:

A number of strategies can be followed to deal with public speaking anxiety. I will talk about few really effective strategies that you can practice yourself.

  • Face your fears– Avoiding a scary situation is never going to help you. Face it, you will realize it was not as scary as you predicted it to be. Don’t skip your presentation in class, may be you will mess for the first time, but, gradually you will improve.
  • Start small– First talk in front of a small group which is well known to you and who will provide you with honest feedback, for example your mom! It doesn’t matter if the audience does not understand what you are talking about, but practicing in front of someone will surely reduce your hesitation. Then gradually increase the group size.
  • Practice-perfection– Nothing can be better than practicing. Although you can not practice everything beforehand it is perhaps the most important step in overcoming your fears. Practice is quintessential especially when one has to give presentations. The more you will practice the more you will be used to the nervousness associated to it. This way, you will feel relatively more comfortable while delivering the actual presentation.
  • Connecting with the audience is a good way– The audience are not present to judge you but to hear you, to get information from you. You can talk about your fear or nervousness which is very normal to happen. Interacting with audience also helps. It provides you with the feeling that you are talking with your friend or explaining roadmap to an unknown.
  • Relaxation therapy, yoga is also helpful.
  • You can talk to a psychologist if you are not being able to deal with it alone.

If you follow this easy tips I hope you can manage the public speaking anxiety like my friend Esha who is in a marketing job nowadays.

Editorial Credit: Joseph Sohm /

Read More: Stress in Teenagers- How to Help