The fear of public speaking.
74% of people feel a deep-seated anxiety at the simple thought of sharing what the synapses in their brains are firing about. It’s one thing to think something and even share it in an intimate setting with those you trust, but to speak one’s thoughts aloud for every watching-eye to see and hearing-ear to listen to causes sweat to leak from the pores of 74% of people’s foreheads.
It causes throats to dry up. Their hands to become clammy. The blood vessels in their cheeks to fill, causing an apparent rose color that signals to the audience that you are a part of the 74%.
If this is you, you are not alone. 74% of humans are there with you.
This inherent fear of public speaking that so many people possess is evident everyday in my high school English classes. When we are having class discussions and I am asking students their thoughts or opinions, about 3 quarters of the students in the room slouch in their chairs or break eye contact with me, sending every non-verbal method of communication possible to tell me not to call on them. As someone who does not struggle with this fear, and actually relish in public speaking, I can have a difficult time empathizing with these students. For my first few years of teaching, I would make a point to call on students who resisted speaking up in class, living by this assumption that forcing students to speak would teach them that public speaking does not hurt and that they can do it as well as anyone.
However, I eventually made the observation that the kids I called upon/forced to speak usually responded with brief answers to my prompts, sharing out of obligation, and did not all of a sudden become enthusiastic speakers. They went back to being students who shrunk during class discussion, and waited with dread for the day I’d call on them again.
Forcing kids to speak publicly does not work. Believe me, I’ve tried it.
Instead, students need to be taught how to overcome their fears, and given tools and knowledge how to do it. In my class, this starts with a discussion. I ask my students why so many of them are reluctant to speak up in class and are afraid to share their thoughts. The most common response I get is: “We don’t want to be judged.”
Of course that’s the reason. Many of my students are afraid of saying something stupid in front of their peers. Or that their voice might crack. Or the information they share is incorrect. They do not want to face what they believe would be a harsh scrutiny, fearing impending judgement.
I always first acknowledge their fears and validate them. Even for someone who speaks all the time, in front of students and sometimes in front of huge crowds, I experience that fear as well. It can be crippling.
Speaking in front of people takes tremendous vulnerability.
But then I say, “Raise your hand if you agree that this is the main reason you are afraid to speak publicly?” Most of the hands in the room raise.
I ask another question. “Okay, who here, when listening to someone else speak in class, is judging their every word, waiting for them to mess up?”
Not a hand raises.
I have the kids look around the room and notice. Twice now they see that they are not alone. Not alone in their fear, and not alone in the fact that they are not out to attack their peers. I confirm this with them verbally, and this is the starting point for public speaking the rest of the year.
This moment for students can be powerful, but it doesn’t win everyone over. A few students start trying out speaking publicly in class after learning everyone in the room feels vulnerable, but others need more work, and that’s okay.
My next post will be about specific strategies and practices to loosen up discussion in the classroom, and turn students into public speakers.
But before these strategies can be enacted, students must first learn they are not alone.
They are part of the 74%.
Image: Lead Beyond- Creative Commons