Frozen at the Podium

Colleges expand programs to help students who have anxiety over public speaking, but some wonder whether these efforts will work.
January 9, 2008

They’re all staring at me, the college sophomore thought to herself.

She was shaking, foggy headed and, worst of all, saying nothing. It was Hema Yarragunta’s greatest fear – the mid-speech freeze-up.

I thought I’d prepared enough, Yarragunta recalls thinking after it was all over, those excruciating six minutes of delivering an address in front of her classmates at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She'd even chosen a familiar topic, Indian cuisine, so that if she lost her place, she could ad-lib.

The speech started out well enough. But when it came to explaining a cooking step she'd done dozens of times, things fell apart.

“Anxiety kicked in -- I got more and more nervous as the speech went on,” she said. “I was searching for words, and eventually I blanked.”

For reticent students required to give speeches in front of their peers, Yarragunta's experience is enough to trigger memories of nervous moments waiting to approach the podium.

Seventy percent of people (and roughly the same proportion of students) have a fear of public speaking, says James McCroskey, a professor of communication studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham whose oft-cited work details what he terms "communication apprehension."

For the masses, taking courses that require speeches can be no pleasant experience. While most people are able to work through their anxiety, McCroskey's research shows, roughly 20 percent experience fear so extreme that not only is the thought of public speaking debilitating, so too is the idea of talking in small groups or to another person. Professors share stories about students fainting during speeches and dropping a communications course 15 times.

In the most extreme cases, a student's fear of public speaking can stand in the way of graduation. It can also be an academic concern. According to McCroskey's research, students in the highest-anxiety group earn grade point averages one-half point lower than their peers. They accept lower grades, he figures, in classes that take into account participation.

Experts in the speech field say much is being done to help students cope with their fear of speaking. Colleges offer communication classes for those who report the most anxiety. Professors point students to speech centers staffed by other students who, in many cases, have overcome their own fears.

With increasing resources for students, some worry the conversation is so focused on 'how' that it's ignoring the 'why.' As in, why should colleges force students to take public speaking courses, anyway?

Targeting The Anxious

For Yarragunta, what made matters worse were her own expectations. She had earned high marks on two earlier speeches and expected nothing less on the third presentation. When she faltered, even thumbs-up signs from classmates and words of encouragement from her professor weren't enough to calm her. She stumbled through the rest of her speech.

“I thought, ‘This is it. I’ve lost everything I’d worked so hard for all semester,' " she said. "I felt incompetent in the moment."

New to the country and expecting other public speaking assignments as a business major, Yarragunta sought help at Greensboro's University Speaking Center, which trains students to tutor others who want help delivering speeches and improving communication skills. Years later, she's a graduate assistant at the center, having served as a peer tutor since her sophomore year.

The idea of speech centers, many of which are modeled off campus writing centers, started to gain traction roughly a decade ago, said Karen K. Dwyer, a professor of communication and a public speaking program coordinator at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Her campus, which offers 42 sections of a required public speaking fundamentals course taught each semester, has an academic support program for students and faculty seeking speech help. So does the University of Pennsylvania, even though the institution has no public speaking course for undergraduates. Professors there can require that students in need of speech help work with the center's advisers.

Arizona State University's speech lab has a similar relationship with professors, although it's sometimes they who are being tutored by students who watch tapes of presentations the faculty member has given. That can be a tricky arrangement, admits Meg McConnaughy, director of the lab and a lecturer who teaches public speaking courses at ASU. She cites several cases of skeptical professors later admitting that they benefited from the help. And she often tells the story of the most extreme case of student anxiety the center has ever handled.

"One time a student walked in who could not raise her eyes from the carpet," McConnaughy said. "She stood there for 20 minutes and couldn't say her name."

A tutor asked why she was there. The student held out a note -- the School of Education wouldn't let her graduate unless she improved her communication skills. That student came in every week for two semesters, improving from nod responses to short sentences to whispers to full conversations.

She enrolled in McConnaughy's required public speaking course and eventually got up the nerve to make a public presentation.

Courses that cater to self-identified anxious speakers have been around for decades, and it's unclear whether the offerings are growing or shrinking. At Penn State University, several sections of a speech course are reserved for students who suffer from high anxiety over public speaking. The University of Northern Iowa offers a similar course for students with either documented or self-diagnosed speech anxiety.

But Robert Burns, a professor of speech at Curry College, in Massachusetts, said some colleges that have undergone budget cuts have shuttered courses specifically designed for anxious speakers. Only a few people at each college are trained in handling high-anxiety students, he said.

Burns, like many other professors who study communication apprehension, suffered from anxiety in his younger years. He had panic attacks whenever it was time to address a large group.

"It was an awful feeling," he said. "To be going through it and to know you're different, that most people don't have to throw water on their face, it's something that sticks with you."

Requirement or Not?

Definitive data about the number of colleges that have public speaking requirements is hard to come by, but McCroskey said he has, for years, heard colleagues, particularly those at large universities, report that their institutions were cutting the requirement altogether. Medium-sized colleges tend to keep the courses but introduce other options, and smaller colleges often keep the requirements, McCroskey said he has found.

At Greensboro, students are required to take two speaking-intensive courses -- one in their major and another as part of a general education requirement. At Texas State University-San Marcos, public speaking courses are part of the general education requirements.

Kim Cuny, director of Greensboro's speaking center, said although students need to get oral communication competencies, “I don’t think they all should be required to know how to give a speech.”

Her example: nursing students. They need strong one-on-one communication skills but not necessarily a background in public speaking, she said.

McCroskey's message is clear: While he doesn't want to see colleges spike public speaking courses, he doesn't want them to require students to take them, either.

Still, William Huddy, director of the Center for Excellence in Oral Communication at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, said colleges shouldn't budge. Relaxing oral competency requirements does a disservice to students, he said, because many jobs require them to be confident speakers.

McCroskey also argues against making class participation part of the grade. “Quiet kids aren’t those who hate school," he said. "Being shy isn’t an indicator of stupidity or disinterest or any of those things. We’ve taught our academic people that you have to get people to talk to learn. It’s just a false assumption.”

That raises the question of whether professors in some cases are giving students who aren't fearful of speaking an out.

“Sometimes kids just aren’t preparing for class,” said Arlyn T. Anderson, an assistant professor of communication and journalism at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. “I don’t think they all have documented anxiety.”

'They Can Be Helped'

There's a longstanding debate in the speech field about the extent to which students with speech anxiety can be helped.

McCroskey points to his research showing that communication apprehension is predominantly genetic. That doesn't mean if your mom is anxious you will necessarily be, too, but "it's very, very hard to change behavior -- it's almost useless when you're talking about genes," he said.

Then there's Dwyer, the Nebraska professor and author of " Conquer Your Speech Anxiety," who argues that everyone's behavior can be modified. (And for students, better do so by their sophomore years or the most anxious will likely drop out, her research shows.)

"Even students who are highly introverted, if they want help, they can be helped," Dwyer said. "I'm not going to turn them into extroverts, but they'll be able to function."

In her estimation, people develop a phobic response to public speaking and can be taught through a range of visualization techniques and cognitive restructuring methods to reduce their anxiety.

Yarragunta said she's learned that it's natural to be anxious before a speech -- it's the same physiological reaction as excitement. The goal, through muscular relaxation and deep breathing, is to harness the good kind of energy. Burns, the Curry professor, takes students through a visualization routine in which they play in their heads their pre-speech routine -- getting dressed, eating breakfast, walking to class -- so that they feel comfortable once the presentation begins.

Steven A. Beebe, professor and chair of the department of communication studies at Texas San Marcos, who teaches courses in public speaking, said students can also manage apprehension by being familiar with the opening parts of the speech.

Stephen Lucas, a professor of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said faculty can put students at ease by, before posing a question to class, letting students talk over the material before calling on a few of them to explain their positions. Anxious students are most on edge when they're put on the spot, Lucas said.

Several professors said what students fear the most is a negative evaluation, either from faculty or their peers. They want to give the perfect speech, and when something goes wrong, everything falls apart. Dwyer said she tries to persuade students that the audience cares more about the content than they do about the speaker.

Anderson, the Eau Claire assistant professor, proves it by emphasizing to students that he grades speeches mostly on content and structure and less on presentation.

McConnaughy tells students, "Why not talk to your audience as they are walking in? Tell them, 'Would you mind nodding and smiling occasionally?' That way, if you hit a rough spot, they will give you support."

In some extreme circumstances, she even tells nervous students to stand and do jumping jacks.

But not every professor will allow cardio workouts during class, and not all students will be advocates in the audience. That's why Huddy said anxious students need to learn more than momentary coping mechanisms.

“Meditation might work for one speech, but it doesn’t help them cognitively work through the problem. It’s kind of an escapist approach," he said.

Huddy advocates an approach in which students deliver speeches to a partner in class, review each other's performance, watch tapes of the presentation and be so prepared that it doesn't matter who's in the audience or whether the professor is aware of their communication anxiety.

And then there's the issue of how to measure what students have learned. Many professors employ the Personal Report of Communication Apprehension, a widely used test that asks students to rate their levels of anxiety over time.

Yarragunta said she's seen a marked improvement in her public speaking over the years.

“I can be honest with my audience now when I forget what I'm saying,” she said. “I don’t have to look for words. If I lose my place I can take it in a different direction and improvise.”


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