There’s been a commercial on TV recently about glossophobia, or the fear of public speaking. It’s an advertisement for a new Google tablet, which does seem pretty cool, but the message about overcoming speech anxiety is even cooler. Watch it now: Google Nexus 7 Fearless.
I was hired as an adjunct to teach entry-level English composition courses, but I got lucky and was also asked to teach a few sections of Public Speaking. I absolutely love teaching this course, which is ironic because so many students dread it.
The fear of public speaking is very real. You don’t have to look very hard to find a thousand studies that put public speaking at the top of a list of common phobias. In fact, many times you’ll see public speaking rank higher than the fear of death. The first day of COM 111 is a true testament to this.
For a lot of them, their anxiety begins the moment they register for the course. Others experience anxiety when a new assignment is introduced or in the moments directly before they are to deliver their speech. There are superstars who are just naturally good at speaking and don’t seem to struggle much at all. But for the rest of us, anxiety manifests itself in many different ways. Some get shaky hands or shaky voices, some do the “pee pee dance,” some get itchy, some get blotchy. My favorite is the “clothes-adjuster” – the person who is so uncomfortable that they straighten out their shirt over and over again as if the shirt were the source of their discomfort. I say this in jest, of course, because watching students squirm isn’t enjoyable for me. What is enjoyable is helping them observe themselves and watching them improve throughout the course.
I make it clear from the beginning, however, that I cannot help them by myself. Almost immediately we all agree that people fear public speaking because, by nature, we’re afraid of failure and looking foolish in front of our peers. Many students come to COM 111 with what I call “public speaking baggage” – they had some awful experience in middle or high school when students laughed at them or a bad teacher ridiculed them in front of the class. On day 1, I invite students to create a culture where it is safe to fail and fall flat on their faces. It’s inevitable, I tell them. I let them know, though, that even if they do fail we can help each other replace our negative baggage by creating positive experiences. Students are invited to share their observations of each other openly and constructively. If the student is willing, they’ll absorb the feedback, focus in on certain things to work on and then come back with a stronger speech the next time around.
In the Google commercial, the boy transforms because he watches others on his new device, practices and hits a home run only to be presented with another challenge: asking the girl out on the date. In COM 111, students get better because they fail at first and other people help them through it. I enjoy teaching this class so much because I get to watch student after student improve, and their ability to transform is truly remarkable. What’s even more remarkable, however, is what we are able to accomplish together as a group. Perfect strangers become friends and encourage one another to the point where they don’t want to show up unprepared because they don’t want to let each other down. On the last day of class, students say goodbye, exchange phone numbers and even hug each other. It doesn’t always happen, but when it works, it reveals something very true: what we can accomplish as a group is so much more powerful than what we can accomplish by ourselves.