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Scared speechless
Articles: Stream of thought  | Scared speechless

Scared speechless

Public speaking affects everyone differently -- but perhaps not in the ways that you think.

By Nancy Bartosek

You shift in your seat and try to disguise the clammy hands, tinny mouth and sick feeling bubbling in the pit of your stomach. As you contemplate delivering this speech, your memory walks out the door, and you desperately wish you could follow. Meanwhile, the competition is the model of cool confidence, talking off-the-cuff and apparently unaffected by the public speaking assignment.

Why the difference?

Speaker response. Behnke uses numerous techniques to determine anxiety (emotional responses) and arousal (physical responses such as increased heart rate) surrounding public speaking. Testing involves observation behind two-way glass, at left, and measuring heart rate and skin reponses using electronic equipment.

Speech Communication Prof. Ralph Behnke has been looking into the physical and psychological manifestations of this fear for nearly four decades. Much of it, he said, you arrive in this world with.

"Traits, like the speech anxiety trait, are built into an individual," he said. "And trying to change traits which are resistant to change, isn't always very effective."

That's not really a death knoll to those terrified of public speaking. Behnke's research is shedding light on ways to work around it. His goal is to isolate the times of highest physical and psychological anxiety so therapists can devise ways to treat the fear.

"We've found some very interesting things about speech anxiety that we didn't expect to find," he said. "For instance, the psychological and physical signs of anxiety don't usually correlate. Someone can feel very anxious emotionally but it won't register physically, and vice versa."

One student felt confident while speaking, but bright red blotches always broke out on her face. It was so embarrassing she eventually refused to speak in public. Another, a large, burly man, was so terrified he was willing to forgo a career in the Navy rather than take a speech class.

Behnke, who was recently honored by the National Communication Association as coauthor of the research article of the year, is now studying anxiety peaks during the preparatory phase of public speaking.

"Physically, the highest point of anxiety and arousal is the moment a speaker begins speaking," he said. "We have never found an exception."

A psychological high point occurs when the assignment is given. That, Behnke said, would be a nice time to treat it.

"Conversely, we found that the lowest point of anticipatory anxiety is when they actually are working on it," he said. "Once they have a chance to work on their presentation, anxiety drops way down."

Public speaking anxiety is a universal worry, topping the list on national surveys of individual fears. Not so well known, and rather surprising, Behnke said, is that there is very little difference in anxiety during presentation between men and women, but a lot when you look at their initial reactions.

"Once they get up there and give their speech, men and women perform the same," he said. Researchers still don't know why, "but women worry about it a lot more beforehand."

There is hope. Fearful speakers can take classes, join speaking groups or volunteer to make performances in comfortable settings, such as church. If practice doesn't help, a professional speech communication therapist might.

"Public speaking anxiety is similar to test taking," he said. "There are some who have high capability but are still terrorized by tests.

"In a way, it's the nature/nurture debate in a narrower framework. But most people are able to be helped by mild therapy."

The good news is that the audience only picks up on a fraction of the speaker's fear. "They really don't see much of your anxiety," Behnke said. "But we have discovered that speaking anxiety is contagious to other speakers, so if the guy before you is really terrified, that's going to affect your performance. As a speaker, you do pick up on his fear, even though the audience doesn't."

Behnke's ultimate goal is to help people put their best face before the crowd, even if they were born with stage fright.

"That's hard to change," he admits, "but it can be done."

Speaking points

1. Audiences greatly underestimate a speaker's fear, detecting only about 11 percent of the speaker's anxiety.

2. Though a stammering or shaky voice is usually associated with anxiety, truly shaken speakers gesture and vocalize less, which the audience wrongly attributes to lack of preparation.

3. The most common symptom of speech anxiety is communication avoidance, not nervous behavior.

4. About 20 percent of the general population has very high levels of public speaking fear.

5. Public speaking anxiety is contagious. Anxiety levels of preceding speakers influence those who follow.

6. Although psychological responses to speaking anxiety vary drastically, physical signs (heart rate, etc.) before, during and after the performance are nearly identical from speaker to speaker.

7. Psychologically, public speaking anxiety is greatest while anticipating a speech. Physically, it peaks at the beginning of the performance.

8. No single coping technique -- who hasn't been advised to pretend that the audience is naked in order to reduce nerves -- has proven superior. A combination of several is usually effective.

9. People vary in their biological susceptibility to developing speech anxiety.

10. Early childhood events at home and school condition a person's anxiety about communicating with others.