One of the realities of textbook writing is that you never have enough space to say all you want to say. Fortunately, this blog allows me to elaborate on topics, post that elaboration here, and then enable students to find the material with a quick scan of their smart phones or tablet. Communication apprehension is one such topic that students and instructors frequently ask for more information than what will fit into a specific textbook. Here, then, is my most complete discussion of communication apprehension (with an emphasis on skills for managing apprehension) from my Essential Elements of Public Speaking, minus the reference citations to research. This provides a more thorough discussion than would fit into my Human Communication or Essentials of Human Communication. The most authoritative source on communication apprehension is Virginia Richmond and James McCroskey’s Communication: Apprehension, Avoidance, and Effectiveness, 5th ed. (Boston, MA: Pearson, 1998).
Here we consider a few preliminaries to communication apprehension and then offer four strategies, four sets of skills, that may help you manage your own fear of speaking.
Managing Your Apprehension
Most people would agree that pubic speaking can be scary experience. After all, you’re the center of attention and you’re being evaluated. Your fear is normal. Fortunately, this far is also something that can be managed and made to work for you rather than against you.
The Nature of Communication Apprehension
Apprehension in public speaking is normal; everyone experiences some degree of fear in the relatively formal public speaking situation. After all, in public speaking you’re the sole focus of attention and are usually being evaluated for your performance. Experiencing nervousness or anxiety is a natural reaction. You are definitely not alone in these feelings.
Trait and State Apprehension
Some people have a general communication apprehension that shows itself in all communication situations. These people suffer from trait apprehension—a general fear of communication, regardless of the specific situation. Their fear appears in conversations, small group settings, and public speaking situations. Not surprisingly, if you have high trait apprehension, you’re also more likely to experience embarrassment in a variety of social situations. Similarly, high apprehensives are likely to have problems in the work environment; for example, they may perform badly in employment interviews and may contribute few ideas on the job.
Other people experience communication apprehension in only certain communication situations. These people suffer from state apprehension—a fear that is specific to a given communication situation. For example, a speaker may fear public speaking but have no difficulty in talking with two or three other people. Or a speaker may fear job interviews but have no fear of public speaking. State apprehension is extremely common. Most people experience it for some situations; not surprisingly, it is public speaking that most people fear.
Apprehension Exists on a Continuum
Communication apprehension exists on a continuum. Some people are so apprehensive that they’re unable to function effectively in any communication situation and will try to avoid communication as much as possible. Other people are so mildly apprehensive that they appear to experience no fear at all; they’re the ones who actively seek out communication opportunities. Most of us are between these extremes.
Contrary to popular belief, apprehension is not necessarily harmful. In fact, apprehension can work for you. Fear can energize you. It may motivate you to work a little harder—to produce a speech that will be better than it might have been had you not been fearful. Further, the audience cannot see the apprehension that you may be experiencing. Even though you may think that the audience can hear your heart beat faster, they can’t. They can’t see your knees tremble. They can’t sense your dry throat—at least not most of the time.
Here are several ways you can deal with and manage your own public speaking apprehension: (1) reverse the factors that cause apprehension, (2) restructure your thinking, (3) practice performance visualization, and (4) desensitize yourself. The same techniques will also help you manage apprehensiveness in social and work situations.
Strategy One. Reverse the Factors That Cause Apprehension
If you can reverse or at least lessen the factors that cause apprehension, you’ll be able to reduce your apprehension significantly. The following suggestions are based on research identifying the major factors contributing to your fear in public speaking:
Reduce the newness of public speaking by gaining experience. New and different situations such as public speaking are likely to make anyone anxious, so try to reduce their newness and differentness. One way to do this is to get as much public speaking experience as you can. With experience your initial fears and anxieties will give way to feelings of control and comfort. Experience will show you that the feelings of accomplishment you gain from public speaking are rewarding and will outweigh any initial anxiety. Try also to familiarize yourself with the public speaking context. For example, try to rehearse in the room in which you'll give your speech.
Reduce your self-focus by visualizing public speaking as conversation. When you’re the center of attention, as you are in public speaking, you feel especially conspicuous, and this often increases anxiety. It may help, therefore, to think of public speaking as another type of conversation (some theorists call it “enlarged conversation”). Or, if you’re comfortable talking in small groups, visualize your audience as an enlarged small group; it may dispel some of the anxiety you feel.
Reduce your perceived differentness from the audience by stressing similarity. When you feel similar to (rather than different from) your audience, your anxiety should lessen. Therefore, try to emphasize the similarities between yourself and your audience. This is especially important when your audience consists of people from cultures different from your own: In such cases you’re likely to feel fewer similarities with your listeners and therefore to experience greater anxiety. So with all audiences, but especially with multicultural groups, stress similarities such as shared attitudes, values, or beliefs. This tactic will make you feel more at one with your listeners and therefore more confident as a speaker.
Reduce your fear of failure by thoroughly preparing and practicing. Much of the fear you experience is a fear of failure. Adequate and even extra preparation will lessen the possibility of failure and the accompanying apprehension. Because apprehension is greatest during the beginning of the speech, try memorizing the first few sentences of your speech. If there are complicated facts or figures, be sure to write them out and plan to read them. This way you won’t have to worry about forgetting them completely.
Reduce your anxiety by moving about and breathing deeply. Physical activity—including movements of the whole body as well as small movements of the hands, face, and head—lessens apprehension. Using a visual aid, for example, will temporarily divert attention from you and will allow you to get rid of your excess energy as you move to display it. Also, try breathing deeply a few times before getting up to speak. You’ll feel your body relax, and this will help you overcome your initial fear of walking to the front of the room.
Avoid chemicals as tension relievers. Unless prescribed by a physician, avoid any chemical means for reducing apprehension. Tranquilizers, marijuana, or artificial stimulants are likely to create problems rather than reduce them. And, of course, alcohol does nothing to reduce public speaking apprehension. These chemicals can impair your ability to remember the parts of your speech, to accurately read audience feedback, and to regulate the timing of your speech.
Strategy Two. Restructure Your Thinking
The suggestion to restructure your thinking might at first seem a strange idea. Yet cognitive restructuring or cognitive reappraisal—as the technique is technically known—is a proven technique for reducing a great number of fears and stresses. The general idea behind this technique is that the way you think about a situation influences the way you react to the situation. If you can change the way you think about a situation (reframe it, restructure it, reappraise it) you’ll be able to change your reactions to the situation. So, if you think that public speaking will produce stress (fear, apprehension, anxiety), then reappraising it as less threatening will reduce the stress, fear, apprehension, and anxiety.
Much public speaking apprehension is based on unrealistic thinking, on thinking that is self-defeating. For example, you may think that you’re a poor speaker or that you’re boring or that the audience won’t like you or that you have to be perfect. Instead of thinking in terms of these unrealistic and self-defeating assumptions, substitute realistic ones, especially when tackling new things like public speaking.
Fear increases when you feel that you can’t meet your own expectations or the expectations of your audience, especially when these are unrealistic to begin with (Ayres, 1986). Your second speech does not have to be perfect, or even better than that of the previous speaker. Just try to make it better than your own first speech.
Positive and supportive thoughts will help you restructure your thinking. Remind yourself of your successes, strengths, and virtues. Concentrate on your potential, not on your limitations. Use self-affirmations such as “I’m friendly and can communicate this in my speeches,” “I can learn the techniques for controlling my fear,” “I’m a competent person and have the potential to be an effective speaker,” “I can make mistakes and can learn from them,” “I’m flexible and can adjust to different communication situations.”
Recognize, too, that even if you give six 10-minute speeches in this class, you will only have spoken for 60 minutes . . . one hour . . . 1/24 of a day . . . 1/35,064 of your four-year college life. Let your apprehension motivate you to produce a more thoroughly prepared and rehearsed speech. Don’t, however, let it upset you to the point where it hampers your other activities.
Strategy Three. Practice Performance Visualization
A variation of cognitive restructuring is performance visualization, a technique designed specifically to reduce the outward signs of apprehension and also to reduce the negative thinking that often creates anxiety.
First, develop a positive attitude and a positive self-perception. Visualize yourself in the role of the effective public speaker. Visualize yourself walking to the front of the room—fully and totally confident, fully in control of the situation. The audience is in rapt attention and, as you finish, bursts into wild applause. Throughout this visualization, avoid all negative thoughts. As you visualize yourself as this effective speaker, take note of how you walk, look at your listeners, handle your notes, and respond to questions; also, think about how you feel about the public speaking experience.
Second, model your performance on that of an especially effective speaker. View a particularly competent public speaker on video. As you view the video gradually shift yourself into the role of speaker; become this speaker you admire.
Strategy Four. Desensitize Yourself
Systematic desensitization is a technique for dealing with a variety of fears, including those involved in public speaking. The general idea is to create a hierarchy of behaviors leading up to the desired but feared behavior (say, speaking before an audience). One specific hierarchy might look like this:
5. Giving a speech in class
4. Introducing another speaker to the class
3. Speaking in a group in front of the class
2. Answering a question in class
1. Asking a question in class
The main objective of this experience is to learn to relax, beginning with relatively easy tasks and progressing to the behavior you’re apprehensive about—in this case giving a speech in class. You begin at the bottom of the hierarchy and rehearse the first behavior mentally over a period of days until you can clearly visualize asking a question in class without any uncomfortable anxiety. Once you can accomplish this, move to the second level. Here you visualize a somewhat more threatening behavior; say, answering a question. Once you can do this, move to the third level, and so on until you get to the desired behavior.
In creating your hierarchy, use small steps to help you get from one step to the next more easily. Each success will make the next step easier. You might then go on to engage in the actual behaviors after you have comfortably visualized them: ask a question, answer a question, and so on.
These strategies are not designed to eliminate fear but rather to help you manage it so that it doesn’t impose barriers in your social and professional lives.