Recently I have been thinking about stage fright, or public speaking anxiety. Just this weekend alone I have witnessed several of my peers competing in a creative writing competition for scholarships valued over $3000.
As end of the semester presentations are upon us, I have also become aware of how normal it is for students to cringe and crumble at the idea of presenting in front of a class.
In Dibartolo and Molina's study on public speaking anxiety, the found that "[f]ear of public speaking is the most common social fear experienced by the general population and can have far-reaching academic effects, including lower course grades and even an increased likelihood to drop out of college" (Dibartolo, Molina 160).
I am no exception when it comes to fear of public speaking. However, I have learned to cope with it.
Last year I performed at a poetry slam competition and crumbled on stage. Prior to the performance, I felt fine. Once I took a step on stage and turned around to face the audience, I noticed that several professors from my program were in the crowd. I freaked. My performance was embarrassing, and it took me several days to get over my failure.
A fear of public speaking in or out of the classroom can be a sensitive and serious topic. As it is prevalent in our classrooms, I think it deserves some attention and consideration.
Last week, I presented at a professional conference. My placement for the panel was in between two professors. As the first professor began his portion of the presentation, I began to feel numbness in my cheeks, and my hands felt tingly. Both of these symptoms increased my anxiety as I knew my time was quickly coming. However, I got up and made my presentation, and I was later complimented on my professionalism.
Just a few days ago, I performed at the same poetry slam competition. This time, I did what was previously unthinkable for me. As I stood on stage, I told the audience that the title of my poem was "I Want You to Look at Me: For Five Minutes." I then stood still, and without moving or saying another word, the audience stared at me. I felt like the my time on stage would never end. I survived although I did not win the competition.
I got over my fear by practice. What helps me the most is understanding that the time I am actually demanding any attention is very temporary no matter how it feels. Acknowledging my fears as pointless and insignificant helps tremendously as well. However, the latter cognitive exercise did not occur to me until after I had my embarrassing moment at the first poetry slam. I could have done without that learning experience.
DiBartolo and Molina have a cognitive exercise that may help students avoid my experience.
They suggest giving students a written exercise. In this exercise "students are asked to identify their most feared prediction for the upcoming speech (e.g. the audience will laugh, I will run out of things to say)" (161).
The students are then encouraged to rate the amount of anxiety they believe they will experience as well as the likelihood that it will come true. They then make a "horribleness" rating of how bad things would actually be if it did come true (162).
The first-year college students involved with the study found significantly lower fear of public speaking. The idea is that if students are forced to consider their fears logically prior to the event, then they are less likely to "catastrophize," which leads to what feels like an anxiety spiral.
As someone who has experienced stage fright, I think the cognitive exercise DiBartolo and Molina propose is worth a try especially this time of year.
At the very least, having a thoughtful classroom conversation about the anxieties of public speaking may be class time well spent.
Below is a video of my latest attempt to win the poetry slam.