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Fear of Public Speaking

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Hello - I am about to start an MA program in Education, and I'm wondering if anyone can offer advice on how to overcome a fear of public speaking - apparently which only occurs when talking about complex topics in academic situations (for me).  


All through my 4 years of college, I never said one word in class unless it was for an assigned presentation.   Before I gave my very first presentation my freshman year of college, I was so nervous that I actually took a shot of vodka beforehand to try and calm myself down.  I made it through, but barely.  A few years down the line when I was taking upper level seminar classes, we each had to pick a class to 'teach' - which of course, was my worst nightmare.  I was so nervous that I spent weeks and weeks preparing, forgoing all other studies.  Not only did I do the assigned reading but I did a ridiculous amount of background reading and read every article remotely connected to the subject I was speaking on, and prepared a 20 minute presentation (which I read - just 'talking' would have been impossible!).  My professors were beyond impressed with the class and then started questioning me about why I didn't speak more in class.  They said since my papers and presentations suggest that I could give valuable contributions to the class, and since they know I always do the reading, I should speak out in class.  So they started calling on me in class to answer specific questions -- but here's the thing -- when they did this, I completely froze.  I couldn't answer any of their questions. I would just say 'I don't know'. It's like my mind left the classroom entirely and I couldn't even focus or think about what they were asking, at all. Despite this I always got As in all of their classes -- I guess lucky for me they didn't lower my grades because of this fear.


After I completed my senior thesis, when it came time for the defense, the same thing happened.  It was an hour of hell with my 3 favorite professors who I felt completely comfortable with (in informal contexts) and had worked with for 4 years.  Every question they asked me, I couldn't mutter even a semi-intelligent response.  Mostly I just sat there, paralyzed with fear.  It was all I could do not to run out of the room crying.  As a result, my thesis received an A- rather than an A. 


So now I have applied to PhD programs and was rejected from all of them, but accepted into all 3 masters programs I applied to.  I have to wonder if maybe my professors mentioned this odd tendency in my recommendation letters, which may have been part of the reason for the rejections.  So now I have the chance to go to an MA program and prove myself and reapply for PhD programs, but I am terrified the same thing will happen again, even though it has been many years since I graduated from undergrad.  


I absolutely love academic work, I love theory, I love reading, I love analyzing, I love writing and I even love teaching.  I have been teaching ESL overseas for years and am not the slightest bit nervous in the classroom in front of junior high school students.   So why is it that I can't discuss a complex academic idea with anyone in any sort of formal setting? Why does my brain literally just 'shut down'?


Anyway I am just wondering if anyone has ever dealt with this issue, or has any advice to gain confidence for speaking.  Otherwise I fear investing in this year long MA program will be a huge waste of money... and even if I did go on to obtain a PhD, I wouldn't be able to defend my dissertation! 


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Let me just say, you are not alone. I struggle with the same issue. I've had the same talks with my professors. One told me, in a very judgemental tone, that it was unfortunate that someone with such great writing skills and so much to contribute did not do so. It's weird for me too, I used to work in sales and regularly gave presentations, led meetings and had no issues. Jump to the classroom and I'm a stuttering, shakey disaster. My advisor told me point blank I should not even consider grad school (I'm in the humanities) if I can't handle discussion based courses since all my courses in grad school will be discussion based.


Now, I have to suggest that given the praise you received after your presentation that perhaps you're not as bad as you think. Maybe you felt like you barely made it through but it's possible no one else realized how nervous you were. I had to give a conference presentation and I thought it was an unmitigated disaster. Afterwards the moderator said they were extremely impressed with the paper and hoped I continued to research and present. I also had to teach a class and thought I was a wreck. When I told a fellow student afterwards how nervous I was they seemed genuinely surprised and said they didn't notice.


Most importantly, I think you have to identify why you are so afraid. For me, it's a simple lack of confidence in what I have to say. I often feel my thoughts don't "measure up" to my peers. In my case, I think this comes from lack of experience in expresseing myself in formal, academic environments. I'm a first generation college student and I don't know anyone, family or friends, who went to college or pursued academic interests.


For practical steps I would strongly suggest a Public Speaking course. They offer them at most community colleges. Also, I've also found I can generally anticipate the questions professors will ask about the readings and I try to write down notes as I would speak the answer to the question. I've made it a rule that when the questions I expected get asked I answer at least one with the help of my notes. I rarely get called on anymore now that I do this. And if they do sneak attack me and I blank (which I inevitably do) I have notes I can read off of. I've also learned that when a professor asks a question and my brain goes blank it's ok to take a few seconds, take a breath and gather my thoughts before answering.


Finally I've had to realize that public speaking takes practice, it is a skill and the only way I'm going to get better is to just do it. Sometimes I ramble through questions, sometimes my voice shakes, sometimes my brain blanks but it does get easier. I would say I have just as much fear as you and the only remedy I've found is putting myself out there in the classroom and accepting that it's going to take time and a lot of practice for it to get better. I've had to learn it's ok to stumble, it's ok to be less than perfectly coherent in my answers and that I can't beat myself up when these things happen.


Just an aside, I have an older professor who is a natural in the classroom, hilarious, engaging, etc. When I told him I was terrified of public speaking he said it took him nearly 3 years to stop sweating profusely in front of his classes and another couple of years before he would deviate from his lecture notes. It's hard, but it can be overcome.

Edited by Rogue856
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I think it's great you've spotted what makes you nervous and in which context. You know that in more formal discussions of academic work you tend to freeze. The first thing that popped into my mind when I read this is: you need professional help that can guide you into feeling more confident in front of peers and professors. Psychologists and counsellors are trained to help you do this, maybe there is someone that you know that can work with you into solving these matters. 


At first glance, what I see, being a teacher myself, is that you paralyse in situations your skills/knowledge is tested: in front of your class, in front of your professors, etc. Unfortunately, academic work is always being tested by everyone: advisers, peers, journals, etc. So I'd say that if you want to continue on this path, which clearly do, you need to work on public speaking skills and for that, sorry to tell you, you need to... speak! :) 


Now, here is my modest piece of advice, while you seek for better, more professional assistance on the matter:


Relax. To relax means to acknowledge you are in control but things may go wrong. and if they do, they do. It's not the end of the world. Relaxation will help your thoughts flow and your words come out of your mouth as if somebody else was speaking for you. Relaxation helps focus all your energy on one thing, otherwise all your muscles are stiff and your body is dealing with too many things at the same time.


Use somebody else's shoes. As a teacher, you probably like it when your students own their words, when they sound confident, right? Imagine what impression you want to leave on your professors and peers. You also want to sound confident, right? Then, do!!! From what you have said, you do your homework and know how to make the connections and the analysis of things, then just verbalize it. 


Something can go wrong, so what? If you get stuck, it's not the end of the world. I mean, I'd rather get stuck in class and then give it another try than in the middle of a conference. So, if you get stuck, apologize and then go for it. 


I am a teacher as well and some of my students do not feel confident to speak in front of the class. When I ask direct questions to them, I clarify that they do not need to answer right away and I give them time to organize their thoughts. Maybe you can do this as well, instead of "escaping" with an "I don't know" you can ask for some time and then answer. 


However, I stick to what I said before: do seek for a tutor or someone that can accompany you during your MA so that you have this skill polished for your PhD. Public Speaking is not easy, I can only imagine how you feel, but fortunately there are people ready to help you!!! :D 


All the best!

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I am petrified of public speaking... but frankly, grad school will make you get over it (great exposure therapy!). The way I handled it, was I just told everybody in my cohort I was petrified of public speaking and asked them to give me honest feedback when I was done. The first few presentations, I literally just wrote out all my notes and basically read off of them. By the end of a year and a half, I'm now comfortable giving presentations with minimal notes as long as I'm sitting down :-). Giving presentations while standing up is my next area to work on.


Some people say it helps them to know that it is MUCH less obvious that you're nervous than you think. For example, if you were videotaped giving a presentation where you felt you were quite nervous and shaky, it would be much less obvious than you would expect. When you point this out to people, they often improve in their public speaking. It didn't help me so much, but just a helpful fact to pass on :-D

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Wow, thank you all for the incredibly helpful advice.  And yes, I think taking a public speaking class at a community college is an excellent suggestion.  I'm not sure when I would find the time / a way to do that as I currently live overseas, but I will look into it when I get back.  


Also thanks for the links... I should have done a search before I made the post  :unsure:


Yeah, I think it is a confidence issue for me... and I totally get what you are saying (Andean Pat) about sounding confident, but it's easier said than done!  I think I just really need to practice this.   


Maybe taking tons of notes is also something I should be doing.  In undergrad I took some, but not many, and I never really made an effort to anticipate the questions the teachers would ask - I think that's an excellent thing to try and do.  


Rogue856:   "Most importantly, I think you have to identify why you are so afraid. For me, it's a simple lack of confidence in what I have to say. I often feel my thoughts don't "measure up" to my peers. In my case, I think this comes from lack of experience in expresseing myself in formal, academic environments. I'm a first generation college student and I don't know anyone, family or friends, who went to college or pursued academic interests."   


Yeah, this!  I grew up in a very poor town in the rural midwest and only about 14% of my graduating class went on to get a 4-year degree.  My parents did have college degrees, but only from a local state school, geared entirely at professional programs. So when I went to a top liberal arts school on the east coast (as the only student in my class to go out of state for college!) I was in for a real shock (and not supported at all by family members).  I had never even written a paper in high school, or read a full length book (other than on my own) or even studied geometry or any math past Algebra 1, or a foreign language, AP classes weren't offered, etc..... so I entered a totally new world. I think because of that part of me does always think how can I really offer anything comparable to what my peers are offering in class when I'm already so far behind.  Now that I have had an excellent college education though, maybe I can feel a little more confident entering a masters program at a good school.  


Anyway I am definitely going to take all of your advice into consideration for when I start my program.  Thanks again, everyone!  :)

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Oh I have another suggestion! Fear of public speaking is actually quite easily treated- and actually, virtual reality exposure therapy has become more and more common for public speaking. They can have the people in the audience make different expressions, talk during your speech, roll their eyes, not pay attention, etc.- and can set it up so that you have cue cards, no cue cards, a written speech, etc. It has been shown to be quite effective in treating public speaking and also sounds really freaking awesome (although, I'm biased since I study psych!). Regular exposure therapy is quite effective as well (phobias are like, the easiest thing to treat, relatively). It could be worth it to see someone in your area who specializes in anxiety disorders or phobias and work on it this summer, so that you will be very confident starting the fall.

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That's an excellent suggestion (and yeah that does sound awesome but also terrifying!).  Unfortunately I'm living and working on a rural island in Japan until the beginning of August so it isn't really an option ... :\ 


However there seem to be adult extended learning programs that offer public speaking classes once a week in the evenings on the campus.. so I'll look into getting into that as soon as possible.  

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You could see if there are any web-based exposure therapies. Otherwise, public speaking class sounds like the same thing- but maybe see if you can let the instructor know that you are taking this due to a public speaking fear, and see if she can increase your exposure over time (ex. let you sit with notes the first time, etc. and then work your way up to standing with no notes and no podium).


If the class doesn't help, I'd look into a psychologist who specializes in public speaking/exposure therapy when you get back, so you can at least work on it while you're in school.


Good luck!

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While I presided the journal club of our med school, at least 7-8 of my juniors sought help from me for that reason: some because they were morbidly fearful of public speaking, some as they wanted to get better in their act. I always suggested three things: first a few peptalks like most of the guys already gave here, next a propranolol tablet (it's a beta-blocker that is used by hundreds of performers to evade stage fright) and then if that doesn't work tablet alprazolam (usually .25; .5 if that doesn't work the day prior to the presentation) Don't worry none of these drugs affect your cognition, so your performance can only get better.

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Thanks again Psychgirl, I really like the idea of exposure therapy and I'd never heard of it before, so I will definitely be looking into that as soon as I arrive on campus.  I doubt web based would help me... for some reason Skype doesn't seem nearly as scary as being physically present. Maybe because I feel very distant from it. 


arnds - thanks for the advice.  I think though I'd rather try and work through it without medicine first because, after all, speaking is something I'll have to do in every class all through grad school and later in my professional career.  However that might be a good suggestion for really big things like my first conference presentation.  

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