SRU PROF HELPS STUDENTS OVERCOME SPEECH ANXIETY
August 11, 2014
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Slippery Rock University communication professor Allison Peiritsch estimates that most students in her public speaking classes don't really want to be there because to some degree they are nervous speakers.
Many will tell you point blank; they'd rather eat live spiders than give a public speech. If that sounds a little drastic consider the fact that an estimated 75 percent of all people experience some degree of glossophobia - the anxiety/nervousness that accompanies public speaking.
"Surveys about our fears commonly show fear of public speaking at the top of the list," Glenn Croston, author of The Real Story of Risk, said. "Our fear of standing up in front of a group and talking is so great that we fear it more than death, in surveys at least."
As a professor at Slippery Rock, one of Peiritsch's jobs is to help her students become at ease with themselves and overcome their fear of public speaking.
"My role is to help students find their voice," said Peiritsch. "That may sound trite, but I've been part of, and watched, many presentations in the workplace. During a new business rehearsal, one of my colleagues was told to stop trying to sound like Winston Churchill and just deliver his messages in his own voice. That was a game changer. Once you find a way to present that's professional and comfortable for who you are, it becomes easier to apply public speaking principles and theories."
Not doing so, she says, can often keep undergraduates from accomplishing their educational goals.
"Having good ideas will only take a person so far," said Peiritsch. "The ability to persuasively communicate those ideas is what will get a person noticed, whether in college or in the workplace. Getting noticed means opportunities. Prior to joining Slippery Rock, I worked in public relations for 18 years. I came into contact with people with all sorts of public speaking abilities. Those who were not strong speakers didn't tend to get career advancement opportunities."
The reasons why students fear speaking in front of groups are plentiful. They include self-consciousness, fear of appearing nervous, fear of being judged, past failures reoccurring, poor preparation, narcissism and dissatisfaction with their abilities.
"Standing in front of a room can make a person feel vulnerable," said Peiritsch. "Students often worry that they will embarrass themselves or that they'll forget what to say. The reality is that most of this can be avoided through preparation and some practice. I encourage honesty in my classes. I once asked a group of students how they typically prepare for a presentation. The answers were comical and ranged from: 'I just wing it' to 'I prepare the night before' to 'I rehearse in my head' to 'I pray for the best.' A speech delivered confidently involves research, audience analysis and several rehearsals out loud and in front of others."
However, there's hope to overcome glossophobia. It all starts with realizing your fear and facing it head on. The best ways to accomplish this are to make sure you're prepared, practice relentlessly and learn proper breathing methods to help your body relax. Once you're actually in front of the group, realize that your focus needs to be on delivering the intended material, not the audience or their reactions.
"Becoming a good public speaker is just like being a good athlete, a good writer or a good artist," said Peiritsch. "The only way to get better is to practice - to force yourself to do what you don't want to do until it gets easier.
A lot of students come into my course with the idea that public speaking is about giving speeches. That's true, but it's also much more than that. Public speaking is about being persuasive in everyday life, whether that means speaking up in classes, offering status updates on conference calls, or speaking during team or committee meetings. I encourage students to reframe what public speaking means and then use every opportunity possible to practice speaking in front of others."
Throughout her her many years of teaching, Peiritsch has seen her fair share of public speaking meltdowns. One thing that has helped many students get past an initial misstep is the attitude of their fellow students and a caring classroom.
"I work hard to create an environment where students are supportive and encouraging," said Peiritsch. "When students high-five each other or cheer on their peers' successes, it makes giving a speech a little easier. I had one student at another university who started to cry during her speech. Without missing a beat, a couple of students jumped right in and said: 'You can do it. You're doing a great job.' She took a minute, regained her composure and finished her speech. What started out being a speech became a lesson in kindness - especially when this person was at her most vulnerable."
The type of environment that professors at SRU create in their classes coupled with hard work and dedication by even the rawest of public speakers has always resulted in improvement in Peiritsch's view.
"I have lots of students who come into my courses without a lot of public speaking experience," said Peiritsch. "This is normal. I always tell my students on the first day that if giving a speech is going to keep them up at night, make them vomit, or they're going to have cold sweats for a week, I want to know. I really do. I usually have one or two students a semester who are terrified and will come to my office to tell me that their stomach is tied in 50 knots when it comes to the thought of public speaking. They all get better. I have never had a student not improve in class."
There are normally at least 16 sections of public speaking taught at Slippery Rock in the fall and spring semesters. Peiritsch highly recommends every student, regardless of major, take advantage of the course while enrolled at SRU.
"Public speaking isn't for certain majors, it's for everyone," Peiritsch said. "Unless you're going to be a lighthouse operator, everyone can benefit from a public speaking course.
At an undergraduate level, public speaking is critical for professional preparation. Public speaking also provides needed experience in securing a job. When given the choice of hiring two equally qualified candidates, an employer will most likely hire the person with stronger communication and public speaking skills."
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