Glossophobic? How to Bolster your Confidence at the Podium

by Eileen Hoenigman Meyer

Article content is provided by HigherEdJobs.
Public speaking is a core professional skill, especially in higher education. From shaping professional ideology to teaching or showcasing scholarship, the presentation model is key. That doesn't mean it's easy.

When it comes to addressing a crowd, is public speaking a function that you welcome or weather? If it's outside your comfort zone, here's what you need to know to find peace at the podium:

Glossophobia, which includes stage fright and public speaking fears, is exceedingly common. In an article in Psychology Today, Beverly D. Flaxington explains: "Statistically speaking, three out of every four people fear public speaking and women are susceptible to it more than men, with 75 percent and 73 percent of self-identified sufferers respectively."

In addition to the number of people who struggle with public speaking fears, the intensity of their phobia is also remarkable. Janet Esposito, MSW, writes on the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)'s website: "Public speaking is said to be the biggest fear reported by many American adults, topping flying, financial ruin, sickness, and even death."

So rest assured, if you feel uneasy at the podium, you are not alone in your concern.

Examine Your Discomfort
A good first step in making your peace with public speaking is to examine why it makes you feel uncomfortable. Think about your past experiences. Did something happen during a presentation that made you feel ill at ease? Are you worried about what the audience is thinking or how they are evaluating you? Explore your feelings. Consult a counselor or mentor if it helps you discover what's there.

Esposito explains: "It's often helpful to uncover the deeper fears related to being seen and heard by others, showing vulnerability, and being considered less than perfect. Learning to accept yourself and not feeling that you have to prove yourself to others is at the root of healing."

Fight or Flight
It may seem like no matter how much you rehearse or mentally prepare yourself, those preparations fly out the window when you get to the podium and your body undergoes a physical reaction that is hard to control or understand. Do you find that your skin gets hot, your hands shake, or your voice feels scratchy or unsteady? It can become very difficult to think through those physical reactions.

Ita Olsen, renowned speech language pathologist, author, communications expert, and founder of Convey Cleary, explains: "We go into fight or flight when faced with a group or put on the spot. Our prefrontal cortexes shut down and our bodies make physical changes like increased heart rate and shallow breathing. Our prehistoric brains are deciding whether to run or fight. When we stand there and can't run or fight, our knees and hands begin to shake and our ability to speak becomes degraded. This is when you see people looking like a deer in headlights, stammering, using too many fillers, upspeak, shaky voice, talking in circles with run-on sentences, etc. It's all perfectly normal."

If you feel these symptoms emerge the next time you take the podium, know that your fear is shared by the bulk of your audience and your physical reactions are normal and controllable.

Your distress is also not as detectable as you may think. While your audience may perceive some symptoms of your anxiety, they can't see the extent to which it's happening in your mind. Olsen explains: "The cool part is no one knows the degree to which you are anxious."

Imposter Syndrome
Higher education is a competitive arena of astute academics and professionals. It's understandable to feel intimidated when you're called upon as an authority. But remember: you were extended that invitation. You earned it. You belong here. In a world that is fueled by intelligence, creativity, research, and scholarship, it can feel like your contributions are dimmed by the luminaries who may be seated in your audience. Don't let self-doubt interfere with an opportunity that you deserve.

Mentally and physically rehearse those aspects of presenting that you find troubling, like dealing with an academic audience. Know your material and then consider ways to defer if a question comes up that is outside the range of your presentation. Some university professionals can be tough audience members; for example, you may find you have a contemporary who is eager to grab the floor to make his/her own point. If it's one you're not totally prepared for, that doesn't make you look bad. Politely move on with a pre-planned phrase such as: "That's an interesting take, and one worth examining, although it's a bit outside the scope of our conversation today."

As you prepare, consider past situations that you've witnessed. Review ways that speakers handled obstacles that audience members presented. Decide what you think of the approaches speakers took, or think through how they might have handled situations better. Managing an audience smoothly and graciously is not an innate skill. It's one that you can get better at with study and practice.

Exercise and Practice
Olsen notes that while some people "may be organically better than others" when it comes to public speaking, everyone can refine their natural ability with training. Those who make it look easy and natural do so through experience and rehearsal. Olsen explains: "I will guarantee you that every great speaker or communicator has worked on it to some degree or other."

This is good news. This means that achieving comfort and fluency at the podium is within everyone's grasp. Olsen explains that an important way to become more comfortable is to be aware of your reservations and purposefully work past them.

She writes: "The true solution is to eliminate the impact of your anxiety on your musculature. Your fear manifests itself into your musculature and you need to eliminate it. You need to be so relaxed before and during every communicative situation that you can fall asleep. Your body shouldn't be at attention. Your shoulders should be down, your eyebrows should be down. You must do what I call 'Find your Relaxed Place.' ... Do them a few times a day until relaxing is your norm."

You don't have to carry this phobia with you. You can get comfortable with public speaking by examining your fear and actively working to address it. Your perspective is important, so challenge yourself to keep pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone so that you can be a full participant. It's worth it.