Scary Column

What scares you most? In a 2012 research study university students were asked what their greatest fear was. If you thought it was tarantulas, loneliness, heights or darkness you would be wrong. The greatest fear was speaking before a group. And when asked to rank their top three fears, death was number one and public speaking number two, but not by much. So what is it about public speaking that is so scary? Shana Mason, Krista Kozel, and Corey Purcell have taught thousands of students the art of public speaking. As faculty members in communication studies at Doña Ana Community College (DACC) they have seen students who were petrified of giving speeches, and they have seen some redirect their fear to become better speakers.

Purcell empathizes with speakers, “Everyone has felt that,” she said. “Your mouth gets dry, the throat tightens, heart rate increases, sweating; all are signs of communication apprehension. Other feelings include being judged a poor speaker, or that no one will listen” she said. “These physiological and psychological effects are common when speaking in public.” So, as a response many people will talk very rapidly wanting the experience to be over. Or they will forget what they are saying and try to escape. This fight or flight response has roots in prehistoric times but may continue today when one is frightened of something, like speaking in public.

But, know that you will give a public speech. Kozel says you will speak, “at your niece’s quinceañera, your budget presentation to the finance committee at work, or give an impassioned speech at a civic event,” she said. Kozel also warned of the recipes for disaster of inexperienced public speakers. “Do not wing it, or make it up as you go,” she said. “And, do not drink alcohol before your speech.”

So what can be done to make the experience better? Mason knows you can become a better speaker. “First of all prepare your remarks,” she said. “And then, practice…in front of your partner, for feedback, and in front of the mirror to see how you look giving the speech.” “Also speak from an outline either on paper or on index cards.” This allows you to look up and see the audience and receive valuable feedback. As far as handling the fear, Mason suggests, “Know that it is perfectly natural to feel this way. Use those feelings as a motivation and channel it into making a speech.” She said. “In addition, focus on the speech not on any of the feelings surrounding the event.” Mason guarantees that with practice and a little dedication anyone can be a better public speaker. And that the more you speak in public the more you learn to live with and conquer that fear. Now what was number two on that list?