Overcome your fear of public speaking
Others, Presentation, Research

Faculty Focus: Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking

Fear of public speaking is very common, with an estimated 1 in 4 people reporting being anxious when presenting ideas and information in front of an audience. Some folks report being more scared of public speaking than death! While fear helps to protect ourselves in risky situations, it can also get in our way. In the case of public speaking anxiety, fear can prevent us from sharing our research and ideas within academic circles as well as with the larger community. Developing effective public speaking skills will help you advance your career and share your ideas with the world.

What causes public speaking anxiety?

Before we discuss speech anxiety management, it’s important to understand what causes this apprehension. Basically, an evolutionary, physiological mechanism in your body called the fight-or-flight response takes over. When faced with a situation you perceive as threatening, your mind sends a message to your body that you are in an emergency situation and the body responds with surges of adrenaline. This adrenaline energizes you to either fight the threat or to run away from the danger. Unfortunately, your body doesn’t distinguish between physically threatening situations, where you might actually need the extra adrenaline, and psychologically threatening experiences, where the physical symptoms only add to your stress. Thus, when you perceive a public speaking situation to be scary, your body reacts and you experience anxiety. Symptoms of speech anxiety include blushing, accelerated heart rate, perspiring, dry mouth, shallow breathing, shaking, churning stomach, forgetfulness, and nervous “ticks” such as playing with jewelry, tapping fingers, clutching the podium, or twirling hair. Thankfully, scholars from a variety of disciplines have developed techniques to manage speech anxiety. 

How can I manage my public speaking anxiety? 

Change your self-perceptions

The goal is to change how you perceive yourself and your abilities. The saying “mind over matter” is actually quite true. Simply put, if you think you’re a terrible public speaker, you are very likely to perform terribly. These repeated negative thoughts become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As simple as it may sound, replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts is a very effective technique to reduce speech anxiety. This is called cognitive restructuring or reframing. Speakers who think negatively about themselves and the speech experience are much more likely to be overcome by speech anxiety than speakers who think positively. So whenever a negative thought creeps into your mind, immediately force yourself to think positively.

Try following this three-step plan: (1) Whenever you have a critical thought, acknowledge it without judgement. (2) Next, replace that negative thought with a positive thought. For example, instead of thinking “I’m an awful public speaker,” think “No one’s perfect, and I’m getting better with each speech I give.” (3) Finally, focus on the things you do well. Think about all the things you like about yourself that have nothing to do with public speaking—traits that, in the grand scheme of things, are far more important than public speaking skills. Concentrate on these strengths rather than obsessing over your perceived weaknesses. Speech anxiety is often the result of a lack of self-confidence. For many, this comes from fearing harsh judgment by others. Feeling this way can cause us to simplify the situation into two categories—perfection or complete disaster. But thinking this way will only make you feel worse. By using cognitive restructuring, you can begin to stop this extreme thinking and realize that perfection is next to impossible and disaster is highly unlikely.

Visualize success

Another cognitive restructuring technique is called visualization, which takes place prior to your speech and involves the speaker imagining himself/herself in a hypothetical public speaking situation. The goal of this method is to vividly imagine delivering a very effective speech. Simply put, you imagine yourself performing successfully in a situation that causes nervousness and anxiety. Repeatedly visualizing a positive performance has been shown to reduce fears of public speaking because the positive image eventually replaces the negative one. 

Visualization is a very popular ritual for athletes because it helps them perform successfully. Allyson Felix, an Olympic track and field sprinter, routinely uses visualization: “Visualization involves thinking through every detail of a performance so when the time comes, you know exactly what your next move is.” In a study of basketball players, researchers divided a team into three groups: one group practiced free throws, a second group practiced visualization, and a third group practiced both visualization and free throws. Which group do you think performed the best? The third group who practiced visualization in combination with skills training scored the most free throws. So by thoroughly practicing your presentation as well as practicing visualization, you are on the road towards more confident public speaking. 

Understand your physiology

As mentioned previously, there are many physical symptoms of speech anxiety – sweaty palms, rapid heart rate, shaking, and so on. But there are ways to manage these symptoms so you can feel a bit calmer once you get to the podium. Nervous speakers tend to take short, shallow breaths. This induces more anxiety because you are not fully oxygenating your body. To break this habit, practice taking slower and deeper breaths. To know if you are breathing deeply, place a hand on your chest and a hand on your stomach. If your chest rises more, you are breathing shallowly and not taking advantage of all the oxygen your body is capable of taking in. When you breathe deeply, you use your diaphragm and your stomach will expand. Deep breathing also circulates nitric oxide through your body, which has a stress-reducing effect. Think about how emergency medical technicians provide individuals with oxygen when they experience shock. The increased oxygen and nitric oxide flowing through your blood has a calming effect on your body.

In order to take deep breaths, you must have good posture. When you hunch over, your chest collapses and your lungs compress, reducing the amount of air you take in. As a result, less oxygen gets to the brain, leaving you fuzzy-headed. Throwing your shoulders back and standing up tall can also trick you into feeling more confident. Researchers at Ohio State University found that people who slouched reported feeling less qualified to handle a task than those who had good posture. So stand up tall and take those deep, relaxing breaths. You’ll not only look more confident, you’ll feel it too.

Nervous energy can cause you to shake, bounce, or jiggle due to the extra boost of adrenaline pumping through your system. Physical activity is one of the best ways to reduce tension. Before arriving to give your presentation, simply taking a relaxing walk, doing jumping jacks, or some other movement can be enough to release some of the extra tension in your body. Before you approach to the podium, try gripping the edge of your chair seat and gently squeeze the chair. Feel the muscles in your hands and arms tense, then quickly relax. Notice how the tension rushes away.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

Nothing beats preparation for relieving anxiety. If you have invested a considerable amount of time and effort into creating and practicing your speech, you will feel more confident about it. That confidence will inevitably come out in your delivery. Jim Loehr, Ed.D., author of the Power of Full Engagement, has devoted thirty years to helping professional athletes manage their stress and energy. He notes that 90% of successful athletes’ time is spent preparing and only 10% performing. The same can be said for public speaking. Most of your time should be spent preparing your speech in advance. Procrastinating will only hurt you: 

“Procrastination is a way for us to be satisfied with second-rate results; we can always tell ourselves we’d have done a better job if only we’d had more time. If you’re good at rationalizing, you can keep yourself satisfied this way, but it’s a cheap happy. You’re whittling expectations of yourself down lower and lower.” —Richard O’Connor, Ph.D. 

Even more tips

Before you speak: 

  • Work especially hard on your introduction. Research has shown that a speaker’s anxiety level begins to drop significantly after the first 30 seconds of a presentation. Once you get through the introduction, the rest of your speech should progress more smoothly. 
  • Before moving to the podium, imagine speaking to one person at a time. This can help you focus on communicating with your audience rather than performing for them.
  • Scientists have long known that the brain cements memories during the hours you’re asleep. Sleep deprivation temporarily reduces levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that’s crucial for storing new information. Therefore, staying awake until 4am on the day of your speech, trying to memorize every word, will not serve you well. Practice your speech thoroughly, in advance, and then go to bed early. While you sleep, your brain will store your speech into memory. 
  • It’s also important to eat before a speech. Having low blood sugar will make you feel sluggish and queasy. If you have butterflies, I don’t recommend eating something heavy or greasy, but you should definitely eat something with both carbohydrates and protein.
  • To bring about physical relaxation, tighten your toes, calves, and thighs – then relax them. Clench your fists, tighten your arms – then relax them. When you relax your muscles after tightly clenching them, you should feel blood rush into these areas. Imagine that rushing feeling is the tension being eliminated from your body. 
  • Right before walking up to the podium, try this exercise from psychologist Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D. First, find an object that has four corners such as a window or a piece of paper. Focus on the upper left-hand corner; inhale for a count of four. Next, hold your breath for a count of four as you look at the upper right-hand corner. Then, gaze at the lower right-hand corner, and exhale for a count of four. Finally, look at the lower left-hand corner and smile. Repeat a few times.

When you speak: 

  • Do not worry that the audience will notice signs of your inner turmoil. Most of the nervousness that you feel is not visible. 
  • Communicate in a conversational style. Try to use gestures and facial expressions that you regularly make use of in normal conversation. Pretend you’re talking with a group of friends. This will make you appear approachable and natural.
  • Even though it may make you more nervous in the beginning, make eye contact with your audience members. Remember that they are individual people, not a blur of faces. If looking people directly in the eye is intimidating to you, try looking just above their eyes, at the middle of their foreheads (as long as you’re not close to them). From their perspective, it will appear like you are looking right at them. But do strive to make direct eye contact with at least half of your audience. 
  • The audience does not know what you plan to do during the speech; thus, they will be slow to pick up on any mistakes. Since they do not know exactly what you planned, it is easier to make adjustments during the speech without jeopardizing your objectives. Remember – you are the expert on your speech topic. 
  • SMILE! Even if it’s the last thing you feel like doing, smiling can trick your brain into thinking you’re actually feeling good. Research suggests that smiling releases endorphins and boosts serotonin, which can lead you to feel the emotion you’re projecting. 

Regardless of which techniques you use to manage your anxiety, none are as effective as being well-prepared. Preparation is the number one way to reduce speech anxiety because the more time and effort you put into the speech, the better you will feel about it. By implementing these tips and techniques, your next speaking engagement will surely result in a mic drop moment! Best of luck!

Photo of a young woman standing in front of a window wearing earphones with the caption "are you truly listening?"

Are You Truly Listening?

We may not want to admit it, but most of us are terrible listeners.  We’re distracted, mentally overburdened, and typically fail to practice perspective-taking. Too often, we interact with people on auto-pilot, without giving them much thought. In the busy worlds we live in, it can certainly be challenging to devote our attention to someone and eliminate distractions such as our to-do lists, electronic devices, and our own thoughts and feelings.

Being an ineffective listener can have detrimental effects on our relationships with students, colleagues, and our loved ones. But when we listen “mindfully,” we can be aware of these barriers and still remain open and attentive to the speaker’s message. Here are a few tips to practice more mindful listening:

Be present
When we listen mindfully, our focus is on the present moment, which means attending to the person with whom we are conversing.  This requires us to remove as many distractions as possible and commit to actively engaging in the conversation.

  • Workplaces and our homes are full of distractions. If you’re able, make your environment as quiet and distraction-free as possible (yes, that means silencing your devices and putting them away!).
  • If you anticipate the conversation will be important or difficult, take a moment to clear your mind before you meet with someone. Practice a few relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation, before the conversation.

Cultivate empathy
We each see the world through the lens of our own experiences, values, and opinions. Sometimes this can get in the way of mindfully listening because we, consciously or not, push our own perspectives onto the speaker.  But when listening mindfully and empathically, our goal is to understand the other person’s point of view and accept it for what it is, even if we disagree with it. For example, if the speaker expresses frustration, try to consider why he or she feels that way, regardless of whether you think that feeling is justified or whether you would feel that way yourself were you in his or her position. To better connect with and understand the person, try to remember a situation that inspired similar feelings for you and consider how you would like someone to react to your concerns.

When we disagree or are unable to genuinely empathize during a conversation, it’s important to avoid interrupting with counter-arguments or mentally preparing a rebuttal while the other person is speaking. And when you share your own perspective, express yourself using “I” statements to make it clear that your comments reflect your own thoughts and feelings rather than universal truths.

Once the other person has finished expressing a thought, paraphrase or mirror back what he or she said to make sure you understand and to show that you are paying attention. Helpful ways to paraphrase include: “What I hear you saying is…” “It sounds like…” and “If I understand you correctly…” This gives the speaker the opportunity to correct you if you’ve misunderstood them.  But be careful to avoid parroting, which can sound phony. You don’t need to paraphrase everything; use your judgment to identify times during the conversation when providing a succinct synopsis would help you better understand the speaker and keep the conversation on track.

Ask open questions
An open-ended question is one that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”  They require more than one-word responses and, thus, encourage a fuller articulation of thought.  Examples of open questions include: “What was that like?” “What did you learn from that experience?” and “How did that shape your opinion?” Open questions encourage the speaker to think differently or more deeply about the subject and provide you with more information to help you better understand them. They also indicate to the speaker that you are interested in what they have to say (remember: expressing interest does not require you to agree with them).

Be present in your silence
Most of us have our responses playing in our heads before the other person has finished expressing what they want to say. Having a response brewing while the other person is talking is not being present or truly listening.  To encourage you to focus on the speaker, practice paraphrasing and asking open-ended questions as discussed above.

Use engaged body language
Show that you are engaged and interested by making eye contact, nodding, facing the person, and maintaining an open and relaxed body posture. Avoid attending to distractions in your environment, such as checking your phone, and be mindful of your facial expressions (they often reveal how we’re truly feeling).

Avoid giving advice unless it’s requested
Problem-solving is likely to be more effective after both conversation partners understand one another’s perspectives and feel heard. So avoid jumping in right away with advice to “fix” the issue.  Offering unsolicited advice is often counterproductive and diminishes connectedness.

Mindfully observe what happens
This is one of the more challenging skills to practice, but it is worth the effort. When we are truly being mindful, we are able to observe, without judgement, how we are feeling while remaining attentive to the speaker.  Try the following and use your observations to inform your behavior during future conversations:

  • Notice when you choose to listen and when you become distracted.
  • Notice what it’s like to give a person your undivided attention without advising, correcting, or fixing.
  • Notice what happens when you interrupt and what happens when you don’t.
  • Notice what happens when you let go of your agenda, and instead focus on being empathic.
  • Notice how it feels to acknowledge your own reactions as they arise—thoughts, feelings, opinions, memories—then return your full attention to the speaker.

The next time a student approaches you after class, a colleague stops by your office, or a loved one gives you a call, challenge yourself to practice mindful listening.  It’s not easy and it takes continuous practice. But perhaps by improving our own listening skills, we can inspire others to do the same.  What would our communities be like if we were all truly listening?

Collaboration, Productivity

Guest Blog Post | ORGA: The On-Campus Resource that Makes Grant Applications and Grant Management Easier!

This post was written and submitted by the Office of Research and Grants Administration. If your office or department would like us to share updates, information, and/or resources with faculty, as part of our new holistic development focus, please contact Chris Meshanko.

We all know that applying for grants can be a real pain. We often hear that few people actually enjoy applying for grants, because they perceive that grant applications take up a lot of the time that they could spend on their projects. But, applying for grants is also an important way to get the resources you need to conduct projects. And, there are plenty of grants out there, not only for research projects, but for many other types of projects—such as curriculum development, community outreach and public service, instruction-related projects, equipment, and planning.

The Office of Research and Grants Administration (ORGA), at the College of Charleston, can help you with several steps in your grant application. ORGA assists in finding grants that are specific to your interests and offers support for preparation of your grant application, such as composing a budget and budget justification. Our staff also works to makes sure that the grant application is submitted on time.

Once a grant is awarded, ORGA staff, together with Grants Accountant staff in the Controller’s Office, help manage the grant. In general, ORGA acts as liaison with funding agencies, coordinating everything from the timely submission of financial and technical reports to applying for no-cost extensions and potential supplements. In addition, our office also handles research protections and compliance. Through education and the implementation of federal, state, local, and College of Charleston policies and procedures, ORGA promotes the responsible conduct of research.

So, if you are working on a project, developing a new curriculum, conducting research, or if you have an idea in mind and do not know where to start, come to our office and talk to us about it. We will help you find answers to your questions, and refer you to other faculty or staff who work on projects related to your interests. We are happy to meet with you and to discuss strategies for grant applications.

We also offer a variety of workshops for faculty and students on campus. In the past, we have successfully provided faculty workshops on grant proposal writing and student workshops on research protections and compliance, budgeting, and grant proposal writing. Please feel free to contact us regarding requests for grantsmanship workshops, as well as for other support.