Department of Communication

Speech Anxiety

Most people experience some level of speech anxiety when they have to speak in front of a group; in fact, public speaking is many people’s greatest fear. Speech anxiety can range from a slight feeling of “nerves” to a nearly incapacitating fear. Some of the most common symptoms of speech anxiety are: shaking, sweating, butterflies in the stomach, dry mouth, rapid heartbeat, and squeaky voice. Although it is often impossible to completely eliminate speech anxiety there are a variety of ways to deal with it and even make it work to your advantage.

About Speech Anxiety

Experiencing speech anxiety is normal. Nearly everyone gets nervous when they have to give a speech or a presentation, even experienced speakers. The speakers that look relaxed and confident have simply learned how to handle their anxiety and use it to enhance their performance.

Most of your anxiety is not visible to the audience. You may feel like you are shaking uncontrollably but people in the audience probably cannot even tell. Gain confidence from the fact that you are the only one who knows how nervous you are.

The audience wants you to succeed. Novice speakers commonly feel that the people in the audience are extremely critical and want them to fail. This is very rarely the case. Think about situations where you have been an audience member. Did you want the speaker to fail? Probably not; in fact we are usually quite supportive of speakers and may even feel bad for them if they stumble over a word or lose their train of thought. Most audiences you will address as a student are rooting for you.

Anxiety decreases as a speech progresses. Speech anxiety is usually worst right before a speech and at the beginning of the speech. Most people find that once they get through the introduction their anxiety begins to decrease and confidence increases.

Tips for Dealing with Speech Anxiety

Before the speech . . .

Identify the cause of your nervousness. Write down the reasons why you are nervous to give a speech or presentation. If you come up with something like, “I’m afraid I’ll look stupid” dig a little deeper. What would make you look stupid? You may find that you are really afraid that you will forget what you wanted to say. This will help you pinpoint specific things to work on. If you are afraid you will forget what you wanted to say then spending extra time practicing your speech should reduce that anxiety.

Choose topics that you are interested in. We do not always get to choose topics that we speak about. If you are able to choose your topic pick one that interests you. It is much easier to spend time researching and preparing a presentation on a topic that you care about than one you have no interest in. You will also be more inclined to display enthusiasm about a topic that you enjoy.

Prepare your speech early and thoroughly. Having to prepare a speech at the last minute will only increase your anxiety. After you have prepared your speech PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!! Practice delivering your speech at least 7 to 10 times before your actual presentation. Be sure that you know the organization of your main points to avoid losing your place. Watch yourself in the mirror while you deliver your speech, this will allow you to see your gestures and body language and practice making eye contact. You can also give your speech to friends or family members and ask them for feedback. Audio or videotaping your speech are other ways to evaluate and improve your delivery. If you are given a time limit for your presentation be sure to use a stopwatch as you give your speech. Time each practice run and make changes to ensure that you will be able to stay within your allotted time. Keep in mind that most of us speak more quickly when we are in front of a real audience.

Know your topic. If you have researched the topic thoroughly you will be certain that you are presenting accurate information and you will be able to answer questions that the audience may ask. These things will greatly increase your confidence.

Be aware of the speech situation. One of the hardest things for a speaker to deal with is a surprise. While we cannot completely avoid surprises we can minimize them. Make sure that you are aware of all aspects of the speech situation ahead of time. Know your time limit, the size of your audience, the make-up of your audience (see audience analysis), what equipment you will have available to you (computer, overhead, podium, easel, etc.), and any other details that may affect your presentation. Also, if you are using any type of technology in your speech (i.e. a PowerPoint presentation) be sure that you have a back-up plan (see Visual Aids and Technology). Technology can be a wonderful tool but it can also be unpredictable.

Set realistic expectations. No one is perfect. Public speaking is difficult to master even seasoned speakers make mistakes. Instead of telling yourself that you have to deliver your speech flawlessly, think realistic things like, “If I lose my place I will calmly scan my notes and then continue my speech” or “Small mistakes aren’t going to ruin my speech.”

Replace negative thoughts with positive ones and visualize success. Thinking negative thoughts increases anxiety. When a negative thought comes to mind try to immediately replace it with positive thoughts. For example, if you think, “I’m going to forget what to say and just stand there,” replace that with thoughts like, “I’ve done a great deal of research and I know this topic well” and “I have practiced my speech many times and I’m going to deliver it just like I practiced.” Other performers such as athletes and musicians have found that visualization can be a powerful tool to improve performance. See yourself delivering the speech with confidence and successfully conveying your message.

Continue gaining experience. One of the best ways to combat speech anxiety is to gain speaking experience. Take any opportunity that you have to speak in public. Speak in your classes or volunteer to give presentations for groups you are involved in - anything that gives you a chance to hone your speaking skills.

On the day of the speech . . .

Exercise. Exercising on the day of a speech can help reduce anxiety and stress.

Use relaxation techniques. Simple relaxation techniques lessen anxiety and allow them to focus on the task at hand. Some of the most common relaxation techniques are: taking deep breaths, tightening and then relaxing your muscles, and visualizing a peaceful scene.

Accept fear and use it. Accept the fact that you are nervous (remember it’s normal to experience speech anxiety) and use that nervous energy to enhance your delivery. Use the extra adrenaline that you get from fear to invigorate your gestures and enthusiasm about your topic. Remember, even the best speakers get nervous, but they use it to their benefit.

Wear clothes that you feel confident in. Most of us have a few outfits that we feel particularly comfortable and confident in. These are good things to wear when you present a speech. If you feel good about how you look standing in front of your audience, you can put all of your focus on your message. You do not want to distract your audience or yourself by adjusting your clothes or hair during your speech.

Act confident and do not profess your anxiety to the audience. Remember that your nervousness is usually invisible to your audience. If you act confident your audience will assume that you are. This can become a positive circular process: the audience gives you the respect of a competent speaker, you receive positive feedback that gives you more confidence in your ability, and the audience gives you more respect. A common mistake that novice speakers make is telling the audience that they are nervous. This does not lessen your anxiety and it tends to make your audience uncomfortable since they want you to succeed. Acting confident is a much more effective strategy.

Find friendly faces in the crowd. While you are speaking find one or two people in the audience that are giving you positive feedback (nodding in agreement, smiling when appropriate, etc.). When you feel nervous make eye contact with those people. Their friendly faces will give you encouragement.

Find ways to hide your anxiety. If your mouth goes dry, be sure to bring a glass of water with you when you speak. If you sweat excessively, wear clothes that will not allow your audience to detect it. If your hands shake, use gestures that mask the shaking.