Introduction

A woman speaking in a microphone“I have to do what?”

You receive your syllabus on the first day of history class, and you see that a significant percentage of your overall grade for the semester depends upon one, ten-minute oral presentation in front of the class. The presentation is to be based on an original research project and is due in eight weeks.

You are excited to get an email after a very positive job interview. They ask you to come to a second interview prepared to answer a number of questions from a panel made up of senior management. The questions are contained in an attachment. “Please be ready to stand in the front of the room to answer,” the email reads; ending with “See you next week!”

The plans are finalized: You will have dinner to meet your new fiancé’s family on Saturday night—just days away. But, then you are told that your fiancé’s father, a former Marine and retired police officer, will want to talk about politics and current events—and that he will likely judge what sort of person you are based on how well you can defend your ideas.

I get nervous when I don’t get nervous. If I’m nervous, I know I’m going to have a good show.

—Beyonce Knowles

In this chapter, you will learn about dealing with one of the most common fears in our society: the fear of public speaking, which is referred to as communication apprehension (CA). If you are one of those folks—take comfort in the fact that you are not alone! Research indicates that 20% or more of the U.S. population has a high degree of communicative apprehension[1]. CA is an isolating phenomenon; something that makes one feel alone in the struggle. This is true even as programs designed to help people overcome it—like this program and this chapter, for instance—are spreading nationwide. CA is a real phenomenon that represents a well-documented obstacle not only to academic, but also to professional success. CA can impact many diverse areas; from one’s level of self-esteem (Adler, 1980) and how you are perceived by others (Dwyer & Cruz, 1998), to success in school, achieving high grade-point averages, and even landing job interview opportunities (Daly & Leth, 1976). People with higher levels of CA have demonstrated that they will avoid communicative interaction in personal and professional relationships, social situations, and importantly, classrooms. Such avoidance can result in miscommunication and misunderstanding, which only becomes compounded by further avoidance. CA left unaddressed can even lead to a negative disposition toward public interaction, which leads to a lesser degree of engagement, thus perpetuating the fear and further compounding the situation (Menzel & Carrell, 1994). The anxiety creates a vicious cycle and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it is a cycle that need not continue.

A nervous-looking womanBy reading this chapter, you will learn about CA; not necessarily how it develops, as that can be different in every individual, but rather about how people can deal with it effectively. You will learn how therapies employed by psychologists to help people deal with phobias can be translated into effective techniques to deal with CA. You will learn the differences between trait-anxiety, state-anxiety, and scrutiny fear, and how understanding the differences between them can help a person deal with their “personal brand” of CA. You will learn about how people develop habitual frames of reference that come to define the way they approach an anticipated experience—and how anyone can employ cognitive restructuring to help change habits that are counterproductive to delivering effective presentations. Habits can be very difficult to break, but the first step is becoming aware and wanting to succeed. Going into any activity with a positive attitude is one of the basic ways of maximizing performance. CA is not something that can easily be eliminated—turned “off” as if controlled by an internal toggle switch. But it doesn’t have to remain an obstacle to success either.

Effective public speaking is not simply about learning what to say, but about developing the confidence to say it. For many, it all comes down to overcoming those nerves and convincing yourself that you can actually get up there and speak! Each individual deals with CA most effectively through increased self-awareness and a willingness to work on reducing its impact. To conquer the nervousness associated with public speaking, one must identify the factors that lead to this anxiety, and then take specific steps to overcome this apprehension.

As soon as the fear approaches near, attack and destroy it.

—Chanakya


  1. (McCroskey, 1976)