Fear and confidence in public speaking
By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.
“The fear of appearing foolish can only be alleviated through guided practice in rewarding contexts.”
Walker Percy, in his Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, describes a prevalent fear: “A recent poll asked people what they feared most. A majority of respondents agreed in ranking one fear above all others, above fear of sickness, accidents, crime, war, even death. It is the fear of speaking before a group, stage fright.” Why is speaking before a group so frightening? “Is it because you fear a total failure of performance such as never happened in the history of the world, so that not one word will come to your mind and world chaos will follow?” Percy exaggerates so that the reader will reflect on his or her own feelings about public speaking. Is this skill of public speaking so important? Can we just avoid this fearful event? I do not believe that we can but we do need to be aware of strategies that build confidence.
Many situations require adults to present their ideas to others. Workers could be asked to discuss their solutions to a company’s problem. Students in university classes are often required to make a class presentation on their original projects. Adults, in many social and church events, may be asked to give their opinions, to speak their minds. Interestingly, speaking skills are also a part of the new Common Core standards. For instance, Grade 8 students should be able to “present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with relevant evidence, sound valid reasoning, and well-known details; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.” Furthermore, students should be able to “adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks.”
What can parents and teachers do to help students develop these speaking skills? All skills require proper practice to develop mastery and confidence. Parents can be an encouraging audience as their children rehearse any presentations required at school. Parents could set aside a few minutes at home weekly to have their children talk about their interests and activities. Teachers can construct classroom exercises that encourage students to speak in various contexts, from reciting a poem to reading a story to talking about a nonfiction topic.
This summer, my oldest son participated in a science internship at Oak Ridge. He researched various activities that attempted to teach Java computer programming to middle school students. To end the summer, he was required to present his findings to other interns and scientists. In the weeks before, he organized his talk, made a PowerPoint, and practiced a lot. As parents, we listened to several rehearsals. He was both excited and nervous as the scheduled day approached. All this effort paid off when the actual talk went smoothly. This success will hopefully build confidence toward future public speaking engagements.
The fear of appearing foolish can only be alleviated through guided practice in rewarding contexts. As the new school year starts, parents and teachers should look for opportunities to help students master public speaking. The rewards are immense as these future citizens learn to speak their minds, a skill essential in any democracy.
Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS (www.testprepexperts.com ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.