Archive for the ‘Public Speaking’ Category

Public Speaking: When Running is Not an Option

In Psychology, Psychology of Success, Psychology Today, Public Speaking, Self talk, Success, Visualization on September 30, 2009 at 3:23 pm

public speaking - scared

By Bakari Akil II, Ph.D.

Roger’s palms are dripping, his breath is hurried and his heart feels as if it is thumping in his chest. He feels a sense of danger but doesn’t know what to do. He has a case of the ‘butterflies’ and it has his stomach tied in knots. Roger has heard of the term ‘knees knocking’ but now it has special significance. Running is not an option, neither is fighting, so what will Roger do and how can he lessen these feelings in the future?

These are some of the symptoms that people have to deal with when they have to speak to audiences. I know this because one of the courses I teach is public speaking and students privately and publicly share that they have these experiences all of the time.

Recently, after a class, I had a number of students approach my desk. It was about the usual; tardiness, missed assignments or to confide, inches away, that they had a communicable illness but felt they couldn’t miss any more classes. One student, however, actually wanted to discuss a topic dealing with public speaking. He glanced around sheepishly and then asked, “How do you deal with anxiety about speaking in public?”

It is a question that college students often ask, but the concern is common to all of us. So I would like to share some quick fixes as well mid to long-range solutions to lessening anxiety and improving your ability to speak in front of an audience.

Most Fear Isn’t Visible

Many people are nervous about public speaking because they believe that their body will betray them. They feel that cool and casual demeanor that we all tend to display when we are out and about will not stand up to public scrutiny. Well, a quick tip is that many of the indicators of fear cannot be detected by the naked eye. Shortness of breath, ‘knees knocking,’ increased hear rate, ‘butterflies,’ enlarged pupils and sweaty palms cannot be detected by an audience.

To a large degree the cracking of voices or shaking of hands can’t be seen either. When a student tells me their voice cracked during a speech I immediately ask the class if they heard it. I have never had a class say they have. As far as hands shaking is concerned, I advise people to keep papers out of their hands and rest them on the podium if they begin to shake so others will not be able to see it.


Nothing provides a quicker boost of confidence than being prepared to give a speech. Scouting out your audience in advance, writing your speech well before the delivery date and practicing it numerous times reduces an enormous amount of pre-speech jitters. Why? Because you know you’ve done everything in your power to be ready for the experience.

Positive Self-Talk and Visualization

Although the fear that most people have of public speaking isn’t serious enough for them to visit a psychologist that doesn’t mean that psychological theory can’t be used to reduce anxiety. Psychologists Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck were pioneers of cognitive therapy and both believed that you could talk yourself into a negative or depressive state with irrational logic. And with public speaking many people make themselves nervous through terrible reasoning.

What we say to ourselves matters. So when you know that you have to deliver a speech it is best to go ahead and begin to mentally prepare for your success. Think about times when you have successfully spoken before a group of people or a sizeable audience. Imagine how hard it would be to fail when you have prepared thoroughly. Ask yourself what is the worst that could happen and what could you do to counter it. If you feel that you are going to swallow constantly or develop dry mouth you could bring a bottle of water. If you think you will forget your speech you can reason that it would be hard to do if you have well prepared notes and prompts.

Additionally, visualize a successful and pleasant experience. Think about what would make your experience ideal and prepare and practice so that reality will match your internal visualization.

Systematic Desensitization

This last piece of advice requires a lot more effort but it is worth it for individuals who will have to speak to a lot of audiences in the future. If this is the case, it is best not to just wing it until you get the hang of it. Instead, you should be proactive. Join a class, group or organization that teaches public speaking.

Being involved in a class or group gives you the opportunity to gain repeated exposure to an audience in a positive and constructive environment. It allows you to gradually reduce anxiety and increase your skill set at the same time. In the classes that I teach students get at least 30 opportunities to come before a group and work on almost every aspect of public speaking. Within a few weeks the biological response commonly known as ‘fight or flight’ syndrome becomes manageable and within a few months anxiety and nervousness is not an issue at all.

Public speaking anxiety is real but so are the methods to reduce it.


Boot Camps and what matters most in Public Speaking

In Psychology, Psychology of Success, Public Speaking, Success on August 12, 2009 at 6:13 am

public speaking

By Bakari Akil II, Ph.D.

Most of the time the ‘meetings’ took place in the afternoon. As usual, I would be standing outside of a classroom or sitting in a lounge room waiting for the call to enter. Sometimes another candidate would be speaking before me and I would casually glance through the window in the door to see how the ‘crowd’ was reacting. As long as there was no laughter, I didn’t have anything to worry about.

In my quest to become a professor a major part of the interviewing process included presenting lectures to interviewing committees of up to 10 people. These lectures were usually followed by Q&A sessions to see if they liked me and to gauge how I would fit. Most sessions were friendly; some were not.

I’ll be honest with you. I never became nervous or anxious about giving those lectures even though I wore my Sunday’s best and wanted the jobs. Why? Well for five years previous to my search I had been teaching 2 to 3 courses a semester while earning my Ph.D. And although the committees chose the topics, the subjects were in a field I was thoroughly familiar with.

My Ph.D. is in Mass Communication. So I’ve taught many courses with titles such as Mass Media & Society, Intro to Mass Media and New Communication Technologies.  However, there are two courses that I have taught more than any other. Those courses are Public Speaking and Oral and Interpersonal Communication.

People who take these courses often ask what do they need to do to become “good” public speakers. I don’t ‘sugar-coat’ my response. When it comes to public speaking, there’s no magic pill or secret formula. But there is a major tool that a person needs to become an effective public speaker.

And that is confidence.

If you don’t have it there is only one way to get it and that is by practicing in front of an audience. No other shortcut will do. Yes, there are plenty of books that tell you how to write a speech, craft a presentation or how to use self-hypnosis to convince yourself you are a great speaker. But all of that is secondary to being able to confidently deliver a message.

I’ve seen people react in ways you couldn’t imagine or make up in the years that I have taught these courses.  People cry, run out of rooms, turn all shades of red, shake uncontrollably and when they are really scared they don’t even bother to show up. Then there are those who manage not to self-destruct, but are so ill-at-ease they are unable to get anyone to pay attention to their message. They make their listeners extremely uncomfortable.

But there is major upside. I have seen these same people become solid public speakers by the end of the term. Shy and retiring people morph into class favorites by becoming confident enough to display sides of their personalities that only their families and significant others have been lucky enough to experience.

It may sound counterintuitive, but I am able to help students because I run my classes like a boot camp, albeit a fun one. Each class the students must come up front and speak for at least a minute, which is an eternity if you are afraid. At first they must come up in groups, then pairs and then by themselves. I have them create original poems, tell jokes, take turns at charades, tell us about an issue that is important to them, tell us where they want to be in 10 years and a host of other exercises.

In groups they must create and pitch a product or service, come up with a Public Service Announcement and participate in debates. They end up speaking in a multitude of contexts and experience a broad range of emotions while doing so. They also work in groups and build solid relationships with people they would normally never interact with. All of these exercises build confidence and it is displayed in their speeches.

Students learn to do things they never thought possible. They can hold people’s attention, make people laugh and learn that people will take them seriously. They also learn that they are interesting people and that other people are interesting if you take the time to get to know them. What is really happening is that they are learning to be comfortable in public and beginning to experience all of the benefits it brings.

I write all of this to get to this conclusion. If you are interested in improving your public speaking skills to advance in a job, career or organization, your best bet would be to join a group or sign up for a class where you can speak regularly. It is one of the quickest methods you can use to increase your social and emotional intelligences. Barring that, try to consistently place yourself in a position where you have to speak before others such as a club, group or organization.

You can always learn how to construct a speech from a book, but confidence to speak can only come from speaking before crowds.