Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Public speaking anxiety

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Public speaking anxiety:
Why do we get nervous about public speaking and how can it be managed?

Overview[edit | edit source]

It’s the night before your big presentation! You’re nervous. Sleep won’t come as you toss and turn, mulling over your speech. “Is it good enough?" “What if I stumble over my tae?” “What will everyone think of me?”

Morning finally arrives; butterflies are plaguing your stomach. Your heart is racing and your hands tremble as you slowly step up on to the stage. All eyes are on you! You brace yourself and take a huge breath before you begin.

Figure 1. Jerry Seinfeld jokes about the prevalence of public speaking anxiety.

Have you ever experienced this scenario or something similar? You are not alone! In fact, public speaking anxiety is one of the most prevalent fears in the general population (Geer, 1995; Stein, Walker & Forde, 1996). The experience can affect anyone; with epidemiological studies demonstrating that prevalence is not dependent on gender, ethnic group, or age (Osorio et al, 2008). In numerous studies it has been found that fear of public speaking is more common, and rated more highly, than fear of death (Jagdag & Balgan, 2015). Comedian Jerry Seinfeld highlighted this astonishing finding in one of his stand-ups.

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking - number two is death. Death is number two? Does that seem right? To the average person that means that if they have to go to a funeral, they’d be better off in the casket than giving the eulogy.” - Jerry Seinfeld (1993).

So why does this fundamental social skill make us so anxious? Why does our body shift into fight-or-flight mode in response to something that poses no real threat? Although there may not be a physical threat associated with public speaking, there is a psychosocial one. When we engage in public speaking, in some respects, our reputation, competence and intelligence are all put under the microscope. If we mess up, what will everyone think? As social animals, the opinions of others matter greatly to us. Giving a great talk has the potential to inspire others, increase our social status, get us promoted, or convey insight on a revolutionary topic. A poor speech however, is often accompanied with pity, embarrassment and an attack on our competency. The prospect of these negative consequences have the potential to send us into a sort of "emergency mode". The following chapter will attempt to explain why some of us enter this state of emotional emergency, as well as give advice on how to manage the fear and anxiety associated with public speaking.

Definitions[edit | edit source]

What is anxiety?[edit | edit source]

Anxiety is an emotion that evokes intense worry, tension, and other physiological symptoms, such as increased heart rate and trembling.  Although some degree of anxiety is necessary for action and motivation in everyday life, when individuals experience too much anxiety, it can cause significant distress and debilitation (Darke, 1988). Anxiety can be further understood as a sub-category of fear. Fear is as an essential emotion that triggers heightened awareness and the tendency to fight or flee in response to a threat (Reeve, 2014). Anxiety differs from fear in that it is often triggered by a psychological threat - one that does not pose any physical danger, and that is often directed towards a future event (Reeve, 2014). Feelings of anxiety can become overly distressing if people feel that they do not possess the skills or competency to overcome the situation that is causing them so much worry (Reeve, 2014). Feelings of incompetence related to public speaking is a key contributor to public speaking anxiety (Bodie, 2010).

What is public speaking anxiety?[edit | edit source]

Public speaking anxiety (PSA) can be characterised by intense worry and tension that arises as a result of having to participate in a public speaking (PS) situation (Bodie, 2010). The adverse symptomatology of PSA is exhibited, both during PS, and in anticipation of a PS scenario (Bodie, 2010). It should be noted that PSA is a common form of anxiety in the general population and should not be confused with glossophobia- which is the intense fear of speaking. PSA comes with an array of physical symptoms such as shaking, nausea and a racing heart. However, it is the psychological disturbances that can pose the most harm to one's well-being (reference, date?). Due to the distressing nature of PSA, people who suffer from it can often develop avoidant styles of behaviours, that may hold them back in many areas of their lives (England et al, 2012). Studies have shown that individuals with PSA are less likely to attain high status or leadership roles in their working lives, as their condition causes them to avoid opportunities for progression, and stay hidden from the spotlight (Bodie, 2010). The condition is also associated with unemployment, lower income, lower levels of education, and significant levels of distress in school and at work (England et al, 2012). In many ways, PSA can act as a social barrier, preventing people from excelling and achieving their full potential.

Distinction between PSA and social anxiety[edit | edit source]

Social anxiety can be defined as an intense fear of social situations (Blöte et al, 2009). The fear is thought to be driven by a strong need to present oneself well in social settings, accompanied by negative self-beliefs that one does not possess the skills to do this effectively (Clarke & Wells, 1995). PSA has been recognised as a sub-type of social anxiety as many of the symptoms and cognitive mechanisms seem to overlap (Blöte et al, 2009). However, the conditions are distinct, in that PSA arises specifically when one is confronted with a PS task, whereas social anxiety is a more generalised fear, that can affect people in many situational domains. Despite the distinction, it has been found that approximately 70% of people diagnosed with social anxiety disorder (SAD) also report significant levels of PSA (England et al, 2012). As such, a distinction must be made between people who suffer solely from PSA and those who experience it in addition to SAD.  

State PSA or trait PSA?[edit | edit source]

PSA can be further conceptualised as being a type of state anxiety - dread, worry and tension that arises when one is confronted with a specific threat-inducing situation (Bodie, 2010). State PSA is an unstable form of anxiety, in that it only creeps up in reaction to PS situations. People who experience PSA in addition to SAD, or other forms of anxiety, are said to suffer from a more permanent and stable form of the condition (Bodie, 2010). As such, individuals who report PSA, in addition to general feelings of anxiety, can be diagnosed with having trait PSA. The distinction between the two types is important, especially when selecting appropriate treatments.  

Symptoms[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Stress

Psychological symptoms:

  • Intense anxiety in anticipation of, or at the thought of having the speak in front of a group
  • Avoidance of events that require you to speak publicly
  • Psychological distress and feelings of panic

Physical symptoms:

  • Heart palpation's[grammar?]
  • Increased blood pressure 
  • Excessive sweating
  • Nausea
  • Dry mouth
  • Muscle tensing
  • Body tremors 

Aetiology and theory[edit | edit source]

So why do we get so nervous about public speaking? A study by Bippus & Daly (2009) posed this question to a class of undergraduate students. The results yielded a 9-factor model shown in Table 2. Although these explanations were only gathered from a single study, with a relativity small sample size, it does give a useful insight into what lay-people believe to be the top contributors to PSA. Can you think of any other reasons why people get so nervous when confronted with PS?

Table 1. Possible reasons why people experience PSA (Bippus & Daly, 2009)
Humiliation Individuals concern of being personally ridiculed or rejected.
Preparation Poor organisation and presentation.
Physical appearance Concern that one’s physical features will be scrutinised.
Rigid rules Belief that there a certain standards/rules that must be met in order for a presentation to be good.
Personality trait Tendency to be negatively self-focused.
Audience interest Fear that the audience will show disinterest.
Unfamiliar role Nervousness caused by inexperience.
Mistakes Fear that one will make some form of mistake or social blunder.
Negative results Fear that the presentation will result in adverse consequences for the presenter.

Physiological response to stress[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Sympathetic Innervation

When faced with the stressful, and potentially threatening, situation of having to give a presentation, the limbic system initiates two physiological responses. Firstly, it instructs the pituitary glands to release a burst of stress hormones, namely cortisol and adrenaline (Henry, 1992). These hormones energize us and facilitate feelings of anxiety and a heightened sense of awareness (Henry, 1992). The second response is the activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).The SNS activates in response to a perceived threat and prepares our bodies to fight or to flee (Beaty, 1988). As a result, our heart rates increase, pupils and blood vessels dilate, breathing volume increases and our muscles contract. These internal bodily reactions are responsible for the shaking, trembling and red complexion that can occur during a public talk.  

Schacter's two-factor theory of emotion[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Schacter and Singer's two-factor theory of emotion

So is the limbic system to blame for PSA? According to Beaty (1988), it is not our bodily reactions per se that cause PSA, but instead how we label these reactions. It has been found that people who do not have PSA, experience the same physiological arousal as those who do (Beaty, 1988). Thus, it is thought that the individuals who internalise the physiological symptoms as being a sign of failure and incompetence, put themselves at risk of developing PSA (Beaty, 1988). People who see the symptoms as being a normal reaction, allow the stress to energize them and do not form negative beliefs (Beaty, 1988). As can be seen, our own cognitions can play a big part in the development of PSA. These findings reflect Schacter and Singer's two-factor theory of emotion (see Figure 4). The theory posits that when a stimulus evokes physiological arousal, people tend to make cognitive appraisals of the situation before an emotion is felt (Schacter & Singer, 1962). In a PS scenario, PS would be the activating event that causes physiological arousal. This would then be followed by cognitive appraisal of the symptoms (eg. I am reacting this way because I fear the humiliation of not giving a good talk). It is theorised that attaching the negative appraisal to the situation is what causes the experience of anxiety (Schachter & Singer, 1962).    

Conditioning theory[edit | edit source]

So why do some of individuals attach negative appraisals to PS while others don't? Conditioning theory offers an explanation for the development of fear and anxiety, that can be applied to PSA. The theory posits that anxiety is a learned condition; that negative life experiences can shape us to behave in certain ways, and to avoid certain things (Hoffman, Ehlers & Roth, 1995). Some studies have supported conditioning theory with many individuals who suffer from PSA reporting traumatic instances as being the trigger for their condition (Hoffman, Ehlers & Roth, 1995). As an example, if Steve has had bad experiences with PS throughout his schooling (perhaps he stuttered and shook uncontrollably), over time this may create a situation in which PS (once an unconditioned stimulus) becomes strongly associated with negative outcomes and as such becomes a fear-inducing stimulus (conditioned stimulus). The natural response when faced with a fear evoking event is to fight it or flee, and as discussed above, the SNS prepares us for this. As lashing out at palm cards or the audience is both unproductive and socially unacceptable, fleeing is often the more viable option. If you have ever skipped an introductory tutorial or gotten out of giving a public talk, you would know all about this. However, when one learns to avoid PS opportunities, they miss out on crucial experience, skill building and opportunities to challenge the association between PS and negative outcomes (Hoffman, Ehlers & Roth, 1995). As we all know, public speaking situations are very common, and unavoidable in society, therefore the fear must be faced! Fortunately, conditioned fear can be unlearned through a technique called systematic desensitisation.

Figure 5. Getting caught up with negative thoughts can interfere with public speaking performance

Cognitive model of social anxiety[edit | edit source]

Negative thought patterns have been found to exacerbate social phobia and contribute to their maintenance (Clarke & Wells, 1995). Although PSA is distinct from social anxiety, the cognitive model by Clarke & Wells (1995) offers a useful explanation for how negative thoughts about the self are triggered and contribute to the strengthening of anxiety disorders. Firstly, one must enter the socially feared domain. For someone with PSA, this would be approaching the stage before a speech. Entering the feared domain triggers past memories and self-directed assumptions (negative beliefs and fears that one is incompetent). These beliefs then activate a perception of threat and an emergency response in the form of anxiety as one fears that their social self and status may be jeopardised. Anxiety triggers physiological and behavioural responses such as a racing heart and trembling. These responses then facilitate cognitive processing, as they provide the individual with physical evidence that they are failing in the social domain. A pre-occupation with one’s physical symptoms and negative thoughts can also interfere with performance in social settings and lead to additional blunders- adding further credit to the belief that they are incompetent (Clarke & Wells, 1995). Many people who suffer from PSA may be able to relate to this vicious cycle of self-defeating thoughts. Cognitive approaches to PSA treatment focus on the eradication of negative thought cycles by replacing them with more positive and realistic expectations (Hopf & Ayres, 1992).

The effects of social arousal[edit | edit source]

Robert Zajonc theorized that the presence of others stimulates arousal and that this can enhance behaviours that are easy or well learned, but can impair behaviours that are difficult (Zajonc, 1965). In accordance with this theory, it can be said those who find PS easy would thrive under conditions of heightened arousal, whereas individuals who struggle would experience further difficulties. This arousal is thought to stem from evaluation apprehension - concern for how others are evaluating us (Zajonc, 1965). It has been found that individuals who score high on self-consciousness are most likely to worry about audience evaluations and be affected by the presence of others (Gastorf et al., 1980; Green & Gange, 1983). Studies on the effects of increased self-focussing and evaluation apprehension demonstrate this.

Increased self-focussing[edit | edit source]

Research has indicated that self-focussed attention is a prominent characteristic for individuals with PSA, something which may contribute to negative self-evaluations and performance decrements. When giving a public presentation it is important to be aware of your surroundings and engage the audience (Daly et al, 1989). However, people with PSA can become so preoccupied with their own thoughts that they often fail to do this. In a study by Daly et al (1989), a group of students were given questionnaires to ascertain levels of PSA. Weeks later the students were given a speech topic, with ten minutes preparation time, before having to present the speech in front of an audience. After their performance students were required to write a summary of how the speech went, as well as a memory task, with questions regarding what the audience members were wearing and other environmental aspects of the presentation. Results showed that students high in PSA recalled far less environmental facts then non-anxious students. Additionally, high PSA correlated with poorer performance ratings by the audience and more negative self-evaluations.

Figure 6. People with PSA often exaggerate audience expectations, which can worsen their condition

Fear of not meeting audience expectations[edit | edit source]

Ayres (1986) describes PSA as an emotional reaction that interferes with performance. This emotional reaction is thought to be caused by the fear that one does not possess the capabilities to meet the audience’s expectations.  In a correlational study by Ayres (1986), a significant relationship was found between individuals with high PSA and discrepancies between their perceived ability, and audience expectations. Items on the studies survey included (my speech will be less logical than the audience expects, the audience will see me as not very competent, etc.). In a subsequent study by Ayres (1986),  it was found that when students were presented with data that showed that their perceptions of audience expectations were much higher than the average; their self-reported levels of PSA dropped.

Situational and predispositional factors[edit | edit source]

In a correlational study by Beatty (1988), it was found that PSA correlated highly with [what?] prior history, novelty and perceived subordinate status. This highlights what was discussed in the section on conditioning, in that previous experiences with PS, that were poor, can contribute to PSA. In addition, being ill-experienced and percieiving[spelling?] oneself as incompetent compared to ones peers, are also strong predictors of the condition.

Treatments[edit | edit source]

What can be done to treat PSA?[edit | edit source]

Many of the issues faced by individuals with PSA stem from irrational thoughts and beliefs. Table 2 provides some common problematic thoughts associated with PSA along with helpful suggestions for ways of overcoming them. The rest of this section will focus on empirically tested methods for treating PSA.

Table 2. Negative thoughts and ideas for change

Style of thinking Negative thoughts Ways to contest negative thoughts
All or nothing approach to public speaking When an imperfect speech is interpreted as failure Steer clear of aiming for perfection. The perfect speech does not exist. Focus on personal improvements and avoid harsh self-criticism
Over generalisation When one set-back in public speaking is used as evidence that one will fail in all future attempts Realise that this is irrational and self-defeating. One bad performance does not determine future one's
Catastrophizing Assuming you failed and that you gave a terrible speech Wait for feedback before jumping to negative conclusions
Negative self-talk Telling yourself that you have no hope and that you will most likely give a terrible presentation Don’t underestimate the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Prepare as much as you can and don’t will yourself into doing poorly
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Systematic desensitisation[edit | edit source]

This form of treatment stems from the hypothesis that PSA is a conditioned response (Hopf & Ayres,1992). It aims to gradually diminish the relationship between public speaking and anxiety by getting individuals with PSA to participate in forms of relaxation, such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation tasks, while engaging in PS scenario's (Hopf & Ayres, 1992). In this technique, participants must first construct a hierarchy of situations that cause PSA, starting from the weakest trigger (imagining a PS scenario), right through to the strongest (giving an actual presentation). The relaxation tasks then have to be practiced and mastered. Finally, the participants must gradually go through the list of anxiety producing situations while employing the relaxation techniques. This method has been found to be highly effective in diminishing the desire to flee in response to PS situations in addition to enabling individuals to give presentations in a much calmer and relaxed state (Hopf & Ayres,1992).

Figure 7. Psychotherapy

Cognitive modification[edit | edit source]

From a cognitive perspective, PSA is driven by irrational and negative thoughts about the self and one’s overall competence (Hopf & Ayres, 1992). In order to reduce PSA in the long run, it is therefore essential to challenge these negative thoughts and to replace them with more positive ones. This technique is the essence of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). Created by Albert Ellis in 1955, this form of therapy was initially used to treat individuals with mental disorders such as depression (David, Szentagotai, Eva, Macavei, 2005). Numerous studies have demonstrated the efficacy of this technique in reducing both PSA and negative self-evaluations in general (Trexler & Karst 1972; Trexler & Karst 1970; Ayres & Hopf 1987). The table displayed above gives an example of the ways irrational thinking can be contested and reflect the techniques that are used in REBT.

Visualisation[edit | edit source]

Another method thought to facilitate cognitive reframing and positive thinking is visualisation. This method posits that PSA persists due to ones inability to visualise themselves presenting a speech effectively (Hopf & Ayres, 1992). To overcome this, individuals are first given relaxation tasks, followed by visualising themselves coping effectively throughout the four stages of PS (Anticipation, confrontation, adaption and release). This method is both quicker and easier than REBT and some research has suggested that it is just as effective (Hopf & Ayres, 1992).

Skills training[edit | edit source]

This method suggests that PSA arises out of the fear that one does not possess the skills to give a good presentation (Hopf & Ayres, 1992). Therefore, the key to reducing anxiety is to build relevant skills in public speaking. Skill sessions generally involve workshops that promote organisation as well as improved gesture, eye contact and vocal expression (Hopf & Ayres, 1992). Studies have shown that this method has both short-term and long-term benefits to public speaking competence (Bodie, 2010), however, individuals who score high on social anxiety and trait PSA do not experience lasting benefits from skills training (Fremouw & Zitter, 1978; Bodie 2010). It can be speculated from this finding that individuals whose apprehension goes further than a sense of situational incompetence (state PSA) but rather a sense of personal inadequacy (trait PSA) would benefit from cognitive re-framing methods.

Crystal Clear app xmag.svg

Tips for managing PSA

  • Prepare as much as you can and know the speech inside out
  • Involve the audience
  • View the speech as an opportunity to teach the audience something new
  • Think positive thoughts
  • Make it fun
  • Get a good nights rest the day before
  • If the problem is severe seek treatment

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

PSA is a common fear that can hold people back from excelling in many domains of their life. The physiological response to stress contributes to the physical symptoms, such as shaking and a racing heart. Psychological disturbances such as negative appraisals, avoidant styles of behaviour, and rumination, can be attributed to Schacter and Singer's two-factor model, conditioning theory, and the cognitive model respectively. Increased self-focussing and fear of not meeting the audiences expectations can also increase levels of PSA. There are many treatments out there for those who suffer from the condition, however, it is important to ascertain what type of PSA one suffers from, when deciding on the best course of action. Individuals with state PSA or a less severe form of the condition have been found to benefit from simple skill building classes. Those who suffer severely from PSA may require systematic desensitisation and/or cognitive reframing treatments.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 What is PSA?

fear of going outside
fear of public speaking
the physiological reaction to stress
inability to speak

2 What behaviour do people with PSA engage in that worsens their condition?

they avoid public speaking situations
they ruminate on negative beliefs
they fear negative evaluation
all of the above

3 What activates the fight or flight response?

the pituitary gland
the sympathetic nervous system

4 What form of treatment would be best for someone who suffers from state PSA?

skill training

5 What theory emphasises the effects of negative thought cycles on the maintenance of PSA?

conditioning theory
Schacter and Singer's two-factor model
fear of evaluation
cognitive model

References[edit | edit source]

Ayres, J. (1986). Perceptions of speaking ability: An explanation for stage fright. Communication Education35(3), 275-287.

Beatty, M. J. (1988). Situational and predispositional correlates of public speaking anxiety. Communication Education37(1), 28-39.

Blöte, A. W., Kint, M. J., Miers, A. C., & Westenberg, P. M. (2009). The relation between public speaking anxiety and social anxiety: a review.Journal of Anxiety Disorders23(3), 305-313.

Bodie, G. D. (2010). A racing heart, rattling knees, and ruminative thoughts: Defining, explaining, and treating public speaking anxiety. Communication Education59(1), 70-105.

Clark, D. M., & Wells, A. (1995). A cognitive model of social phobia. Social phobia: Diagnosis, assessment, and treatment41(68), 00022-3.

Darke, S. (1988). Anxiety and working memory capacity. Cognition and emotion2(2), 145-154.

Daly, A. J., Vangelisti, L. A., & Lawrence, G. S. (1989) Self focussed attention and public speaking anxiety. Personality and Individual differences, 10(8), 903-913

Daly, J. A., Vangelisti, A. L., Neel, H. L., & Cavanaugh, P. D. (1989). Pre‐performance concerns associated with public speaking anxiety.Communication Quarterly37(1), 39-53.

David, D., Szentagotai, A., Eva, K., & Macavei, B. (2005). A synopsis of rational-emotive behavior therapy (REBT); fundamental and applied research. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy,23(3), 175-221.England, E. L., Herbert, J. D., Forman, E. M., Rabin, S. J., Juarascio, A., & Goldstein, S. P. (2012). Acceptance-based exposure therapy for public speaking anxiety. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science1(1), 66-72.

Fremouw, W. J., & Zitter, R. E. (1978). A comparison of skills training and cognitive restructuring-relaxation for the treatment of speech anxiety.Behavior Therapy9(2), 248-259.Hopf, T., & Ayres, J. (1992). Coping with public speaking anxiety: An examination of various combinations of systematic desensitization, skills training, and visualization. Journal of Applied Communication Research,20(2), 183-198.

Gastorf, J. W., Suls, J., & Sanders, G. S. (1980). Type A coronary-prone behavior pattern and social facilitation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38(5), 773. Henry, J. P. (1992). Biological basis of the stress response. Integrative physiological and behavioral science27(1), 66-83.

Geen, R. G., & Gange, J. J. (1983). Social facilitation: Drive theory and beyond. Small groups and social interaction, 1, 141-153.

Jagdag, D., & Balgan, A. (2015). The Fear in Mongolian Society: Comparative Analysis. Asian Journal of Social Sciences & Humanities Vol4, 2.Stein, M. B., Walker, J. R., & Forde, D. R. (1996). Public-speaking fears in a community sample: Prevalence, impact on functioning, and diagnostic classification. Archives of General Psychiatry53(2), 169-174.Trexler, L. D., & Karst, T. O. (1972). Rational-emotive therapy, placebo, and no-treatment effects on public-speaking anxiety. Journal of Abnormal Psychology79(1), 60.

Osório, F. D. L., Crippa, J. A., & Loureiro, S. R. (2008). Experimental models for the evaluation of speech and public speaking anxiety: A critical review of the designs adopted. The Journal of Speech and Language Pathology–Applied Behavior Analysis3(1), 97.

Reeve, J. (2014). Understanding motivation and emotion. John Wiley & Sons.

Schachter, S., & Singer, J. (1962). Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological review69(5), 379.

Stein, M. B., Walker, J. R., & Forde, D. R. (1996). Public-speaking fears in a community sample: Prevalence, impact on functioning, and diagnostic classification. Archives of General Psychiatry53(2), 169-174.

Trexler, L. D., & Karst, T. O. (1972). Rational-emotive therapy, placebo, and no-treatment effects on public-speaking anxiety. Journal of Abnormal Psychology79(1), 60.

Zajonc, R. B. (1965). Social facilitation. Research Center for Group Dynamics, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan.

External links[edit | edit source]

Ted Talk: Great Public Speaking.