For my students – on fear of public speaking

Dear students,

As we approach the end of the semester, many of you will be making presentations in your classes.  Communication scholars often talk about “communication apprehension” (more commonly known as “stage fright”) – what it is, how to recognize it, and ways to manage it when it happens.

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Here are some things you should know:

Stage fright, performance anxiety, communication apprehension (call it what you want) is NOT a character flaw.  There’s nothing wrong with you!  In fact, it’s an organic (animal) response to being the focal point of others’ attention.  We live in community with others, and we depend on our community for survival.  Our brains are wired up to feel fear when we sense we’re under attack – and being the center of attention makes us feel that way.

See, it’s not your fault.  It’s a little gland in your brain called the amygdala, which triggers fear responses.

People will give you all kinds of advice, like “imagine the audience naked.”  That kind of thing has never worked for me (ok, they’re naked, and I’m still terrified).  My best advice is this:

First – expect to feel this way.  It’s normal to feel butterflies in your stomach, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, for all the reasons I explained.  These feelings can be managed, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t “conquer” them.  They’re normal.  Expect them.  “Well, hello there, fear, I see you showed up again.  You just can’t resist coming along, can you?  But I’m on to your game.  You are trying to make me feel like I’m under attack, but I’m NOT.  You don’t get to run this show.”

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I’ve been teaching regularly since 2004, and I’m pretty good at it, but I still get those butterflies the day before a new semester begins.  I never sleep well the night before classes start.  I expect this – nerves, insomnia – because I know it’s temporary.  It will pass once I see my students in person and get to know you.  Others might think I have “conquered” stage fright, but I don’t believe it’s something to be conquered – it’s something to be managed.  One way I manage it is by expecting it, and being ok with it.

Second – control the things you can control.  All kinds of things can go wrong on presentation day – technology problems, someone in the audience coughing uncontrollably, the speaker before you runs overtime – and there’s nothing you can do about them.  But there’s a lot you CAN do to make sure things go as smoothly as possible.  You can prepare, and practice.  You can pick out your clothes the night before.  You can make sure that you are on time.

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Back in the day, I used to do a lot of theater.  Directors will often give this advice:  do your personal work –  know your lines, know your blocking, understand your character.  The other guy might forget his lines, but you’ll be able to pick up the scene and go on, because you know yours.  Half the set might fall down, but you’ll be able to overcome the distraction because you know your role by heart.

You’ll still be scared, but you’ll find confidence in the preparation.

Here are some practical ways to prepare for a speech or presentation in class:

  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
  • “Walk the room” beforehand.  Get into the room sometime when it’s not being used, and just stand at the front.  Even if you sit in this classroom all the time, you probably haven’t seen it from the up-front vantage point.  Seeing it from this angle will help you envision your performance.  (Even seasoned speakers and performers do this – they “walk the stage” before the audience comes in).
  • Number your notecards, so that if you trip on the way up to the podium and drop them all over the place, you can quickly put them back in order.
  • Remind yourself that this is not a hostile audience.  Everyone wants you to do well.  Your professor, and your classmates too – they’re hoping to hear something interesting from you.
  • This is going to sound really corny – but look at these people with good feelings in your heart.  Look over your audience with friendship and a true desire to share something with them.  It works.
  • If you’ve prepared well, know that you won’t get thrown by anything unexpected – you’ll be able to carry on.
  • Remember that this is a few minutes out of your life.  Do your best, and move on to the next thing.

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I was a shy kid, and I still get nervous in front of a room full of people – but now I do this for a living.  I’ve gotten pretty good at it, if I do say so myself (the picture above is from the ceremony where I won the 2016-2017 Teaching Award), but it’s never stopped being a challenge.  I overcome the fear by reminding myself that I have important things to share, and my being scared doesn’t serve anyone.

I believe in you.  You can do this.

Dr. Hamel







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