Olivia Knoll

Nervous public speakers. Whether you can hear it in the trembles of their voice or see it in the anxious crinkling of their notecard, we’ve all worked with them. By our terms as practitioners, these people are known as ‘high apprehensive speakers.’ Up to 75% of the population struggles with some degree of public speaking apprehension (Black). How as coaches can we best help those with public speaking anxiety? The answer lies in shifting their perspective from speaking with a performance orientation to a communication orientation.

In his book Overcoming Your Fear of Public Speaking, Michael T. Motley pushes this narrative. He writes changing your approach to public speaking to focus on the message you are trying to convey to your audience will help reduce one’s anxiety. Motley reminds readers that the audience is not a set of Olympic judges critiquing their every move throughout their performance. They are not going to be judged on the physicalities of their performance. Rather, the audience is there to hear what they have to say and learnsomething from them (Motley). That said, what is it that they want them to understand? Nervous speakers should direct their attention towards communicating what they want their audience to take away from the speech instead of how they deliver the message. A humbling, yet freeing reality is the purpose of a speech isn’t to get your audience to like you. It’s about what you have to say.

A good first step a speaker can take to focus on the message of their speech is becoming comfortable with the topics they will present on. That said, researching osteoporosis the day before your Biology 200 final presentation isn’t going to work in your favor to set you up for success in that presentation. Instead, advise your clients to spend some time several weeks before the speech growing their knowledge of a topic. Once they have a solid understanding of what they’ll be speaking on, this can help decrease overall nerves. Next, advise them to spend some time outlining the talk and rehearsing pieces out loud to themselves. This is a great first step in getting them more comfortable orally communicating a topic they know well before speaking in front of an audience.

Your client may ask, “how can I focus on communicating my message when my nerves begin to creep up during the speech?” Channeling Motley’s philosophy, remind them that they are effective communicators because they have successful conversations each day! A great exercise to do with a client leading up to the talk is asking them to reflect on a couple of successful conversations they have had that day. It could be ordering their morning coffee, requesting two pumps of caramel syrup and non-fat milk from the barista. It could be asking the clerk for double-lined paper bags at the grocery store to support the watermelon they bought for a summer barbeque. It could even be a meaningful conversation they had with their partner about going long-distance. The point being your client is already a successful communicator because as humans we have these conversations daily. Your job as their coach is to show how their goal of conveying a message to one individual is the same as if they were speaking to 50 people. So, when nerves begin to rise during a talk, they can remind themselves that they are a confident communicator because they communicate messages to others every day.

To conclude, the next time a client comes to you with apprehension regarding their upcoming speech, in the words of Motley, encourage them that they are a confident communicator, not a panicked performer. What they have to say is important, and the audience is focusing their attention on the content of the talk, not the ‘performance.’ Preparation goes a long way in increasing one’s confidence before a talk, so advise clients to begin early. We as humans have conversations everyday communicating our wants and needs to others, and delivering a speech serves the same purpose. Finally, leave your client with this: public speaking apprehension will not magically disappear with a wave of a wand after their first speech. It takes time. And practice. And experiencing fear and making mistakes along the way. So, remind them that practice has high reward, for they are embarking on a journey towards mastering this skill.


Works Cited

Black, Rosemary. “Glossophobia (Fear of Public Speaking): Are You Glossophobic? – Psycom.net.” PSYCOM, https://www.psycom.net/glossophobia-fear-of-public-speaking.

Motley, Michael T. Overcoming Your Fear of Public Speaking: A Proven Method. Houghton Mifflin, 1997.