How can we help learners overcome a fear of public speaking?

As an oracy trainer, I see inside many UK secondary schools and classrooms.  I have the wonderful opportunity of helping young people find their voices, express their opinions, tell their life stories and speak passionately on a wide range of topics, from the perils of social media to the importance of family. 

I come across pupils who enjoy speaking in front of their peers and others who loathe it. Some are so shy and so fearful that their anguish manifests itself in physical form; I’ve witnessed shaking, hair twisting, nail and lip biting and crying.  Some, who you never think will actually stand up and speak, do. Others, who you think are brimming in confidence, fake headaches, go to the nurse’s office and never return. Some reluctant students respond well to positive encouragement and cajoling, others respond better to tough love and motivational mantras.

 

Public speaking is viewed as something out of the norm

What they all have in common, though, is a shared understanding that public speaking is something special, something different, something out of the norm. In fact, my very presence at their school facilitating a whole day confident communication workshop reaffirms this.  It is different.  And this shouldn’t be the case. I often ask myself how we ended up in this situation.  And, then, of course, I remember, the neo-liberal, data collecting, accountability agenda pervading our education system and which may actually be doing harm, emotionally and academically, to a large number of children.

If speaking skills were valued, taught and assessed formatively and summatively from a young age, if they were embedded into every lesson, and if children knew speaking = school and school = speaking (see School 21 for a good example), then this would be the norm, just like evaluating sources in History or using a protractor in Maths or learning vocabulary in French. And this would mean that fear of speaking (or fear of failing or fear of embarrassment, as is often the case), should dissipate with exposure, modelling, structured support, sustained practice and a clear understanding that ‘this is just what we do’.

 

Encouraging a growth mindset

As this isn’t the case in most schools, then we need to find other ways to help children deal with their fear.  Many educators turn to the psychology literature and help to build resilient learners by endorsing a growth mindset.  I myself, when faced with reluctant pupils, use similar strategies: I ensure they have many opportunities to practise and time to prepare; I talk about my own failures and eventual successes, demonstrating that learning comes from struggle and mistakes; I remind them that the anticipation is worse than the actual act; I get other pupils to inspire them with their own talks and positive encouragement; and I make sure to add a ‘yet’ every time they say ‘I can’t do it’.

But sometimes even all this fails.  Sometimes there are still two or three children who refuse to stand and speak, and each time this happens I can’t help to feel that I’ve let them down.

 

Mindfulness techniques

And, so, my quest for knowledge and strategies continues.  It was in this vein that I approached my friend and colleague, a Buddhist nun and mindfulness practitioner and asked her how mindfulness techniques might help young people overcome their fear of public speaking. Here’s her advice:

1.     Create some ‘magical wishes’ for your audience before your talk, e.g. ‘I wish my talk will help them solve a problem in their own life’ or ‘I wish my talk will inspire them’ or ‘I wish my talk will help them understand this issue better’.  Repeating your wishes in your mind will help to strengthen your inner power and your confidence.

2.     Pin your anxiety onto something small and simple in order to calm your mind before your talk. It can be something you notice immediately before you go ‘on stage’, e.g. the knowing of your footstep, the taste of a mint in your mouth, or the feeling of your tight shoulder.  The knowing stays with you and is something neutral and safe to cling on to in a time of uncertainty or stress.

3.     Enjoy your talk while delivering it. Of course, it helps if you’ve prepared content that is interesting and important to you and/or to your audience.  Find the value in your own talk (again for you or your audience) and affirm this value to yourself. Remind yourself that you have something important to say that people want to hear.

4.     Shift your focus onto the audience.  Think about how they’re feeling, how they’re experiencing your talk and what they’re learning from you. This should help you forget about yourself and let go of your nerves a little.

5.     Don’t be too critical of yourself.  When you’ve finished, praise yourself for having the courage to do the talk. Only when your mind is calmer and your tension has eased, should you reflect on strengths and weaknesses.  Even then, remember it’s not black and white. Every audience member may have experienced your talk differently.

 

Don't be too critical

Maybe this last point is the most important one of all.  After all, what trainers and teachers might consider a small step forward might, in fact, be a huge step for a shy or unconfident student. Just like a good speaker needs to cater his/her talk to his/her audience, we need to cater our feedback to individual learners' needs.