Teachers: How to Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking (by David F. Goldberg)
Truth be told, even after being a teacher for over 16 years now and being the center of attention while talking to numerous, large groups of students at the front of the class on a daily basis, plus having been the President of my local Toastmasters club—an international public speaking organization, I still get anxious over public speaking, especially in front of large audiences. How can this be?
Nervous energy before getting up and speaking in front of others, especially your peers, is natural and shows that you care. In fact, if you aren’t even a little bit anxious before you start your speech, then maybe it’s time to start focusing on something else. Furthermore, when speaking in front of my students in class, I am extremely comfortable, as I am quite familiar with them, the classroom setting, and the material that I am presenting, having done so numerous times before. Not so much so otherwise, as I am often presenting the material for the first time, doing so in a new and unfamiliar environment, and presenting to my peers, whom I feel that I have to “wow” and “win over” more.
So how do you get over the very common fear of public speaking?
As Nike says in its highly successful, long running advertising campaign, “Just Do It!” More scientifically speaking, this is called immersion therapy. Immersion therapy—to be fearful of something and still do it—is definitely the best way to overcome something. The more exposure you have to what you fear and the more you get used to it, the more that it will eventually have less power over you. That doesn’t make getting to the starting line any easier, but at least you know the right direction. You can apply the immersion therapy process to many parts of your life, from making friends, networking at events and parties, to even meeting men and women (Starak, n.d.). Let’s take a look at how immersion therapy can help with public speaking, something that is integral to being a teacher.
In order to be an effective teacher, you MUST be an effective public speaker. Sure, you can get up in front of your class and inform them of the current chapter’s material, even giving them specific examples and throwing in some slides here and there. However, unless you can convey the information in an articulate, convincing, interesting, and memorable way, then the transfer of that material to your students is going to be severely impaired. Even if you have taught the material numerous times before and know it like the back of your hand, if you cannot get it across to your students in a thought-provoking way, then it doesn’t matter much how knowledgeable you are about the subject matter. Thus, how well you convey information to your students can be the difference between an educator who can inspire, truly teach and be influential, and a class that won’t concentrate because they have a teacher who cannot connect with them (“Public Speaking: A Vital Skill,” n.d.).
So how do you improve upon the often daunting task of public speaking? First of all, find something that you care about. Speaking about something that you enjoy and have personal experience with, plus have been successful at, is so very different than trying to talk on subjects you really aren’t into. Be sure that you know your topic well and have done your homework on it. Think of questions ahead of time that your audience may ask you and prepare appropriate responses. This will certainly increase your confidence to give a presentation. However, you may still feel quite nervous about going in front of so many people and them all focusing on you (Starak, n.d.).
Nerves are always the worse BEFORE you speak, especially JUST before you speak (Starak, n.d.). You psyche yourself out about doing a good job, not making any mistakes, and not forgetting anything. However, once you actually start speaking and get past the first few minutes or so, if you are well prepared you gradually become more and more relaxed and your confidence grows.
Join a public speaking group
A great way to get the ball rolling with regards to applying immersion therapy is to join your nearest Toastmasters International club. Toastmasters is a public speaking organization with local chapters worldwide where you can practice speaking in front of a relatively large audience that imparts a positive outlook. This is really a fantastic opportunity to “practice, practice, practice” in a supportive, non-threatening, and learn-by-doing environment that allows you to work at your own pace to improve and achieve your goals. For further information and how to find a club near you, check out the Toastmasters International website.
Through Toastmasters I have learned to be a confident public speaker and have become much more comfortable in speaking situations, especially as a teacher. However, I am also much more assertive in my everyday conversations, as whenever we speak with another person we are practicing our public speaking skills (“Public Speaking for Teachers I,” n.d.). I am not afraid anymore to speak candidly and justify what I say articulately.
Seven Practical Tips
Let’s explore some more ways to overcome the fear of public speaking. First of all, get organized. Make sure all of the information that you’ll present is in place, including any audio or visual aids. If possible, visit the presenting venue beforehand and confirm how to set up and use any necessary equipment. When you are organized and have all your thoughts and materials in a row and ready to go ahead of time, you can mentally relax more as you needn’t have to worry about them during your actual presentation. Instead, you can focus your efforts better on the main task at hand…giving an impactful speech (Tracy, n.d.).
Second, don’t memorize what you’re going to be saying in your lesson or presentation word for word. Doing so just makes your anxiety increase as you then have to worry about slipping up. Instead, map it out in full in an outline, with all the main points, examples, and ideas. Then practice giving your speech using only your outline. While rehearsing, try not to be so rigid and instead let your ideas flow naturally when making the connection between points in your outline. That way, you will be able to deliver your speech as if you were talking to a friend (“Psychology of Public Speaking Tips,” n.d.). For the actual speech, condense your outline onto a small card to keep yourself on track.
Third, realize that your audience probably isn’t dissecting your speech along with your every word, thought, and non-verbal gesture as much as you may think. In fact, they are likely to be distracted by other interests (people in the audience, their cellular phones, daydreaming, etc.), especially if they are students. What your audience WILL remember is how you deliver your speech and the key points you make, much more so than the details (“Psychology of Public Speaking Tips,” n.d.).
Fourth, try taking the “it doesn’t matter” approach. When students make presentations, they have to worry about being judged on it and their performance affecting their overall grades. Thus, their anxiety often increases, which affects their delivery and performance. However, most of the time teachers are not being graded per se when teaching a class or leading a workshop at a conference with their peers, and so we can in theory relax more. Use this to your advantage and take on the mentality, “If I make a mistake or two, it just doesn’t matter.” This should hopefully relieve a lot of the pressure and stress that you have before giving your talk.
Fifth, practice your speech first in front of someone you feel very comfortable with, such as your best friend, significant other, or parent. Do so several times. Then, ask them to give you feedback, and to do so frankly but constructively.
Sixth, record your speech with a video camera and watch it to see what you can improve upon. The fewer things that you have to worry about during your actual presentation, the more relaxed you will be.
Finally, do some light exercise before giving your speech. Exercise gets your blood flowing and sends oxygen to your brain. Take a short walk or do some easy stretching (Tracy, n.d.). This should help to stimulate your body and mind, as well as to make you less stiff, both mentally and physically.
Keeping these points in mind and applying them will hopefully ease your inhibitions about speaking in public. Remember, public speaking is something that can be learned and improved upon—you needn’t be born a great orator in order to become one. “Practice, practice, practice” is the key. So don’t wait—join your local Toastmasters club or volunteer to present at your next professional conference or meeting. And if you make some mistakes, don’t worry about it. That is how you’ll learn to get better, eventually feel more comfortable and confident speaking in front of an audience, and in turn engage and inspire your students.
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