A fear to speak

I’ve been a teacher for a few years now and the one thing that strikes me most in students is their fear of getting in front of a class and hold a presentation or having to speak up in class at all. There is always at least one or two people in every class I’ve ever taught, who just sit there and stare at you with these big deer like eyes as soon as you mention: ‘speaking’. Especially when you say it in conjunction with ‘English’. I encountered it again this week when teaching my first year students. They looked at me all wide-eyed and scared the minute I told them they would have to speak English in class. It made me wonder: what is it that allows people to not just be nervous, but genuinely scared whenever they are confronted with having to speak in front of a group.

I myself never had any problems with speaking in public. I just went and did it. After all, I speak in front of an audience every day when I’m teaching and it definitely becomes less nerve racking with every time you do it. The first time I get nervous, yes, but it’s nothing like I see in some students/ pupils. I had people running out of class, break into tears, develop a vehement acute stutter, shaking so badly they couldn’t even read their cue cards, or a multitude of these symptoms combined. I feel for them, I really do, as each school and job they’ll possibly encounter will require at least some form of public speaking. The students who I am teaching currently, are all aspiring ‘leisure managers’. That’s a pretty public function and they will have to be able to hold presentations, talks with employees, employers, customers etc. So how can they solve their problems? And where does this come from? Why can one person be totally at ease in front of a group and why do others turn into scared bunnies?

First of all, I cannot answer all those questions in one blog post, but I can at least come up with a few ways how you can try to calm your nerves and make the best of it. From what I’ve seen part of the fear comes from the fact that people feel they are going to be judged. Not by their teacher, but by the group in front of them. They are scared to bits that they’ll make a mistake and the entire class will crack up. Or that they black out, or that they forget a slide in their presentation, or that they get stuck on their vocab. The list goes on and on. And the problem seems to be, that just because they THINK that is what will go wrong, that’s exactly what goes wrong! So in fact, it’s fear of fear itself. A fear to make mistakes, to fall out of place and grace and to alter the way people see you for the worse.

What can you do about this? The first thing you need is: preparation. When you’re well prepared, you know what you’re talking about and it allows you to right any wrongs that may come up. Also, when you are well-prepared, you’ll know what difficulties lie ahead and you’ll be able to anticipate on them. It also allows you to look up difficult words when you have to do a presentation in a different language.

The second thing you’ll need is to try to stay calm. When you get nervous, you’re breathing quickens and you can start to breathe more in your chest, rather than your stomach, making you hyperventilate in the worst case. It helps you, to focus on your breathing: try to breathe from your stomach. A few yoga classes or voice lessons can do wonders on this field if you have difficulties with this.

Thirdly, don’t try to be 100% correct. You’re just a human being. Making a mistake is okay. That is something you have to realize in order to also calm yourself down a bit. Having a black out is okay, as long as you know how to deal with it, and solve it in an adequate way. Say something to the audience like: I’m terribly sorry, but I just forgot what it was that I was talking about. Take your notes, read back, and see if you can pick up where you got stuck. Of course, if the mistake you make is one that could have been prevented by better planning and organization than that will be something you will be held responsible for.

You cannot control your audience. It’s this bit that makes public speaking especially nerve racking for people, as you are never sure how people will react to what you have to say. Important with this, is to again, to realize this, stay calm and  go with the flow. You cannot predict everyone’s behavior, but you can make this part of your preparation. Ask yourself’: what do I do if A happens? What do I do when B happens? Think this through and you will not have to think of what to do on the spot, but you’ll have something ready to go.

Preparing for public speaking does not mean: learn the speech/ presentation by heart. Learning your text by heart will lessen your ability to improvise and respond to the audience. Therefore, a general rule of public speaking is: know your stuff, but don’t over do it. It will make you look like a puppet or robot and make your presentation especially boring to listen to. This allows the audience to lose interest in what you have to say and thus their attention, which will cause them to become antsy and perhaps even unruly.

Ask your audience to help you out. When you get stuck, nervous or you lose your train of thought, just ask! The audience is NOT there to torture you. In fact, most of the times they are interested in what you have to say and will be willing to listen to what you have to say. They are not your enemy. This becomes a bit more difficult when you’re trying to convince your audience of a point your making or when you’re trying to sell them something. However, if you are well prepared and have your arguments lined up, the audience will not be able to bring you down on that.

Last but not least: BE YOURSELF. This is perhaps the most important one. Why? People can tell when you fake it. Just be you and if you’re a dork who bumps into tables, likes to take examples from Twilight and other popular culture outlets, slip from Dutch to English from time to time, because you can’t get in the right mode, or you are simply having a bad day: it’s fine!

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