How to tackle pupils' crippling fear of public speaking

When a student has a fear of public speaking, there are ways to help them build resilience, says Alan Gillespie

Alan Gillespie

Public speaking: Teacher Alan Gillespie recalls confidently giving a presentation about Pelé when he was at primary school, but says that, as he got a bit older, he developed an anxiety about public speaking

When I was in primary school I remember giving a speech to the class about the storied career of Pelé. It was glorious. I had memorised his full name – Edson Arantes do such-and-such – and relevant statistics: games played, goals scored. It is a fond memory.

Yet, as I grew and become more aware of my voice and my presence, I shied away from voluntary presentations. I developed a distaste for, if not quite a fear of,  public speaking – a condition called glossophobia.

Is it a coincidence that the more often young people are encouraged to display confidence, the more we see instances of anxiety? Some sort of inverse ratio is at play, and the curricular messages are muddled. Yes, we value your health and wellbeing above all else; yes, you must now prove you are a "confident individual" (in Curriculum for Excellence parlance) by giving speeches, both within and without your place of learning. Don’t be nervous!

Quick read: Why every school should embrace public speaking

Public speaking: 'An essential skill at school’

A teacher writes: How I stopped being  afraid of public speaking

I hated giving presentations in high school. My strategy was to write up full essays and read them aloud, barely acknowledging my classmates, rarely pausing for breath, desperate to get to the end. Then at university, I avoided them altogether. Didn’t attend tutorials where I was scheduled to present. Emailed my tutor later, claiming sickness or something.

A fear of public speaking

I know how crippling a fear of public speaking can be. The fight or flight response kicks in, which isn’t conducive to lucid displays of rhetoric.

In the recent reshuffle of unit assessments, the English curriculum in Scotland retained its responsibility for assessing talk through the "Performance: Spoken Language" component, which sounds a little too much like a poetry slam or rap battle for my liking.

This is a barrier to achieving National 5 and Higher English for those pupils who clam up when faced with an audience.

I recently ran support sessions for senior pupils. We met for small, comfortable workshops where they could speak openly about their anxieties. It was touching to see these addressed, perhaps for the first time.

There are common negative associations. The students identified that when theirs is the only voice piercing the silence, they feel uncomfortable; it is easier to speak against background chatter. To combat this, we agreed to play some audio in the background so their presentations are clear, but not too distinctive. There are useful tracks on YouTube, with content ranging from rainfall to coffee shop chatter to a log fire.

Pupils fear their nerves will lead to shaky hands; having a prop to deal with this is a logical solution. Classrooms may not come equipped with lecterns, but schools have plenty of music stands, and these can be repurposed. Similarly, pupils identified that they suffer from shaking legs or adopting weird stances, yet there’s no concrete need for pupils to stand up for a presentation. Let them take a seat –  they can still lead the discussion.

None of these strategies are nailed-on certainties to work, but my group were adamant that small adjustments would make their lives easier. One of their greatest concerns was about being laughed at as they stumble over words. I encourage them to add gentle humour to their speeches, to take control and "own the laughter".

Realistically, most anxieties about public speaking will fade with age and experience. What we are really talking about is resilience: the ability to be laughed at and shake it off, to fill an empty room with our voice.

But resilience doesn’t just happen. Sometimes we need to coach it, nurture it – and listen to the needs of those who stand to benefit from greater resilience.

Alan Gillespie is principal teacher of English at Fernhill School in Glasgow

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