Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Combatting Speech Anxiety: Ways to Increase Student Confidence with Public Speaking

Recently, I have run into an overwhelming amount of anxiety in my sophomore classroom related to public speaking. For the past few years, I have only taught public speaking skills in a senior-level speech course and a college-level speech course, and in both of those courses, students have either elected to participate or paid to be present. While I still have encountered students with anxiety, I have quickly forgotten how truly terrifying public speaking is to the general population - especially young teens.

Having been removed from working with students who would rather write a ten-page research paper than deliver a two-minute speech, I have found myself scrambling through my list of coping strategies to promote positive feeling toward this experience. While it is not uncommon for any person of any age to express a sentiment of dread when a speech assignment is presented in class, I have come to the conclusion that with this group of underclassmen, I must incorporate a few interventions to quell their fears. Addressing speech anxiety of this magnitude necessitates more than a simple pep talk, although that is certainly a terrific place to begin.

What can we as teachers do to combat stage fright to relatively new public speakers? How do we as teachers build a positive atmosphere for students that instills confidence while empowering students to share their voices?

1. Start by reviewing the rubric.

Students need to understand that formal speaking is about so much more than just standing in front of their peers and talking! Several elements work together to create a speech that is impressive from a technical standpoint while communicating strong content. Content does matter, and that content is created in the preparation portion of the assignment. Effective content often comes in the form of a story, which is easier to remember than a list of facts and makes engaging an audience an effortless feat. Also, when one takes the time to identify various elements of public speaking on a rubric, students can begin to understand and recognize what makes a great speaker impactful and what skills they may need to practice to improve their crafts. Looking at and breaking down the rubric for my most recent speech assignment with my sophomores boosted their confidence. They began to realize that even if they lacked confidence with all of the speaking elements, they could still earn a high grade if they relied on their content, prepared thoroughly, and focused on their strengths.

2. Encourage students to confide in each other about their feelings toward delivering a speech in front of their peers.

Talking about their fears and reservation in an open forum truly does begin to create an open and supportive environment. While we all know that most (or all) people exhibit a level of stage fright, we do not always accept that our peers are just as nervous or more nervous than us until we sincerely discuss is. I like sharing "war stories" with students about embarrassing speech moments. We all have them, and we all can laugh about them later... usually. My personal story is not of a speech but a 6th-grade talent show performance in which my doll that served as a prop's head fell off in the middle of a song. The entire school laughed at me, I terrified some kindergartners, and I was bestowed with the label of "that girl who's doll's head fell off" until well into my high school career, but I didn't die. In fact, I kept singing. Louder. While public mishaps are not amusing at the moment, we all survive them. These experiences often serve as valuable lessons, and if nothing else, they certainly are funny after the fact.

3. Peer evaluate and practice.

An important way to build students' self-efficacy as speakers is to encourage them to practice in front of their peers. Small group practice time forces students to present their ideas and rehearse the speaking situation before evaluation. I also like having a rehearsal day as it allows me to check note cards, gauge how much work has gone into the presentation prior to its due date, and also encourage students in a smaller setting, too. This practice also empowers students to watch critically and develop an understanding of what features create a successful speech. They are quick to be honest but also willing to be kind. This experience leaves the speaker with the feeling that no matter what, they have allies in the audience who know what to expect and are rooting for their success.

When I designate a rehearsal day, I also create a Google Form that reflects the rubric and uses an extension called FormMule to automatically email to go to the student speakers with feedback from their peers. In my experience, students sincerely do read their reviews and are often self-reflective about how much work still need to be done before the final performance.

4. Record student speeches AND provide class time to watch their film.

Every talented athlete or performer watches film of his or her performance. Why shouldn't students watch themselves speak? I am fortunate enough to have 15 flip cameras that students can use to record each other. These mini cameras can then be plugged into USB ports and uploaded to YouTube with ease. I upload these videos to my YouTube account and mark them as unlisted, but students can just as easily upload their videos on their own. Filming can expose the nerves, but even though the end products might make the individuals cringe, they pick up on their nonverbal and verbal ticks so much faster when they can watch themselves and critique their work.

Students will avoid watching their film unless given time devoted to watching their work. They need to be given a designated time to watch their work. They can even use a webtool like to annotate their videos while they watch. When they are encouraged to critique themselves and given guidance, they are far more likely to find value in the experience. I have even had students use these videos to create a portfolio with my senior speech class that they can then use to identify their progress at the end of a semester.

5. Incorporate frequent and informal opportunities to practice speaking and listening skills.

In this first semester back to teaching this level of students, I realize that I did not incorporate enough speaking experiences. Yes, students have participated in Socratic seminars and class discussion, but they have not until this point been tasked with standing in front of their peers to present their ideas. In other public speaking courses, students are asked to deliver impromptu speeches, demonstrate simple tasks like making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, teach a section of a text to their peers, and watch/critique other speeches. In my other speech classes, I incorporate video examples of speech assignments that students will deliver and discuss my grading process. Why should this course be any different? While I only teach underclassmen second semester, I now in hindsight realize that the skills and standards in a full speech course can be woven into the fabric of a general education English course with ease. Speaking is such an important pillar of literacy and a necessary skill for all people to find success in any career path they pursue. While I am so proud of my students' this semester, I am eager for next year to begin and to work to use speaking and listening as a way of increasing students' understanding of course content and confidence in all walks of life.

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