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  • Kitty Fan

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad... Speech? One Student Looks into the Fear of Public Speaking

It’s hard to imagine that two years ago the girl who gave speeches with confidence on stage was a shy freshman with big dream. If you recently got to know our new student body president Zainub, you would surely be fascinated by the huge transformation she has undergone. Becoming student body president has been Zainub’s dream since she was a freshman. But back then, she was still too shy to stand on stage to deliver her voice to the community. Two years later, Zainub overcame her anxiety of giving speeches because her goal and passion were able to defeat the mental fear.

You might have heard the term speech anxiety, or glossophobia, many times because this has become one of the most common phobias among the world population. But what is speech anxiety, really? When I asked Coach Wilson and Mr. Cooper, two teachers of our school’s public speaking class, to define speech anxiety, they gave me two almost identical answers. “I believe,” Coach Wilson said after a moment of thought, “speech anxiety is someone’s inability to calm their nerves enough to perform the speech. ” According to Mr. Cooper, “Speech anxiety is probably best described [as] the fear that’s so profound that a person can’t overcome it–that they can’t do their best to perform their speeches. ”

This fear or inability to deliver a speech is due to a physiological reaction. As a property of life, a human is generally able to respond to environmental stimuli. For example, if you are giving a speech, the audience will normally put their concentration on you, the speaker. What will happen to you, the focal point, is that you will naturally feel uncomfortable, concerned, even anxious. In this case, the concentration of the audience on you is interpreted as a potential threat. The speaking coach Olivia Mitchell described this response this way: you will choose a way to defend yourself because a part of your brain, referred to as the Hindbrain (or old brain), which is always searching for potential dangerous stimuli, detects the threat and the consequences it might result in. This defense can manifest itself in multiple forms, such as fainting, uncontrollable movement, and the inability to finish the speech, etc., which result from the “fight-or-flight” response.

However, this defense is not the only form of speech anxiety. In this instance, the response to stimuli only occurs during the speech, but many people get nervous before they give a speech. Mr. Cooper summarized two reasons for nervousness before giving a speech: over-preparedness or under-preparedness. Ideally, the premise of being able to give a speech requires the speaker to understand their topic. Instead of holding a full speech and just reading it out loud, Mr. Cooper suggested a speaker should speak using a well-structured outline This will help him/her avoid being an “ostrich”, who hides himself/herself behind the speech.

Sometimes the speaker still can't give a good speech even though they know the topic thoroughly. According to Dr. Gary Genard, a professional speaking coach, this problem can be based on past failure. The Midbrain is the one regulating our emotion. If you have suffered an embarrassment in front of the class or other similar non-beneficial memories, you will be more likely to have speech anxiety than others because those memories and emotions will most likely come back when you are experiencing the identical thing again! The only way to prevent this returning bad emotion is to minimize the negative thoughts. One way to do this is to compare the unpleasant embarrassment to the awfulness of losing a finger or head or your loved one. Which one would you rather experience? The effect of this comparison is that you might realize that they are actually not experiencing the worst.

One thing to do before you give your speech is to limit the number of demands you place on yourself. The New Brain is the conscious thinking part of our brain. Our thinking pattern can result in our nervousness. Sometimes too many expectations will only mess up the quality of the overall speech because you are too worried about those demands instead of focusing on the message you are trying to deliver. However, a reasonable number of goals will help you give a good speech.

Those four most common causes of nervousness happen inside the head. Nonetheless, the mental nervousness can directly lead to physical discomfort, such as dry mouth, sweating, stuttering, inadvertent movement, etc. because the adrenal glands in our body will pump the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream in response to our nervousness, causing the body to change into a state of high arousal, according to a study published in Applied Psychophysiology & Biofeedback. For some people who are experiencing a lower level of speech anxiety, the symptoms might not be as serious, but those who have high level can have a really serious reaction to public speaking, like fainting.

According to both Coach Wilson and Mr. Cooper, they all believe that speech anxiety can’t be solved; however, the problem can be minimized. “I think you are that way for life, but I think you can get better at controlling it.” Coach Wilson said.

“The most important thing for a planned speech is they have practiced.” Mr. Cooper told me with certainty. In order to decrease the level of anxiety, you can practice in front of a mirror, video-tape and then correct yourself, and have a live audience are the three best ways that were suggested by Mr. Cooper. Zainub has some additional suggestions for students who have speech anxiety: they can answer the questions and share their thoughts more actively in classes. Getting comfortable with speaking to a small audience is the first step to improvement. This will allow you to practice your skill every day at school.

Indeed, facing the fear and getting used to it is surely a better way to overcome speech anxiety than just avoiding it. And, as Zainub proves, it can be done.