Help students overcome public speaking anxiety

It’s 30 seconds before you begin your performance. Your heart rate quickens and grows with enough intensity that you can hear the pulse in your ears. Your palms are sweaty. As you walk to front and center, you get the idea that your legs don’t feel normal. Your arms are stiff and hands are trembling. When you begin speaking there is a quaver in your voice. Daring to look up you see the faces of judgment. You are the embodiment of failure. In this instance, you are suffering what researchers term Public Speaking Anxiety (PSA).

Wait, is this about performance or public speaking?

Some researchers believe that this question gets to the root cause of PSA. In 1994 Michael Motley and Jennifer Molloy wrote about the cognitive orientation toward public speaking. Those that view speaking as performance have a higher likelihood of PSA than those that view speaking as a means of communicating ideas1. To address the problem of PSA, Motley developed “communication-orientation” therapy, which helps the speaker revise their attitudes toward public speaking.

This is one example of what the literature terms cognitive modification, or the process of getting people to think differently about public speaking. Other approaches to reducing PSA include Systematic Desensitization and Skills Training2.

People can suffer from PSA in a variety of circumstances. I have worked with veteran faculty who have lectured to hundreds of students in auditoriums but get nervous in front of a camera. I have seen students extemporaneously deliver heartfelt speeches during a normal class, only to falter in a similar situation where they know they’ll be graded. What can we do as instructors, both for ourselves and for our students? In short: lots.

“[Nervous?] Good. That means you care.’

First, being nervous does not need to be entirely negative. I am reminded about the words of advice offered to me by Bryan Hall (UAF Music) which conveyed understanding and empathy about anxiety associated with public performance: “Good. That means you care.’

Students need to know this sort of anxiety is not a problem that they alone need to face. Sometimes students need feedback that leans more supportive than judgemental.

We can help our students who suffer from PSA think more of public speaking in terms of communication rather than evaluation. Providing a series of learning activities that allow for speaking practice gives them a chance to build confidence. Changing the setting from judgment to shared laughter can be accomplished with a borrowed acting technique called “Doing It Badly’.

The online discussion gives students more time to craft and hone their message than is generally available in a face-to-face classroom or synchronous online session. Once students get the idea that they can effectively communicate they can start decoupling anxious feelings from expected class work.

The UAF Speaking Center regularly helps students improve their speaking skills and develop strategies for reducing PSA using a variety of methods. Tori McDermott, acting director of the center, is enthusiastic about helping students improve their speaking skills. Anyone at UAF, including online students, can make appointments and get assistance.

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1 Motley, M. T., & Molloy, J. L. (1994). An efficacy test of a new therapy (“Communication’orientation motivation’) for public speaking anxiety. Journal of Applied Communication Research 22 (1994), 44-58.

2 Bodie, G. D. (2010). A racing heart, rattling knees, and ruminative thoughts: Defining, explaining, and treating public speaking anxiety. Communication education, 59(1), 70-105.

Dan Lasota

Dan LaSota

Instructional Designer
Certified QM Peer Reviewer
Certified QM Training Facilitator


  1. This article is very helpful. This is another testimony that online technology could facilitate learning and performance. Moreover, the piece draws from the experience and knowledge of faculty from multiple fields.

  2. Hi, thanks for this interesting article. I’m teaching a public speaking course now and looking for activities that would help my students overcome their anxiety when speaking in front of audiences. I’m still unsure what is meant by communication-orientation therapy. Could you give some more info on that? And when you suggest “doing it badly” do you mean asking the students to try to give a really bad speech?

    • Hi Jen,
      According to that 1994 article by Motley and Molloy, the idea of COM therapy was to turn public speaking from performance into communication. On page 52 of the article the authors describe the technique of having patients read aloud from a booklet of approximately 20,000 words. Typically this would take over two hours to accomplish.
      This activity helped the patient realize that their speaking was an act of communication, rather than performance.
      Our task is to learn from this: help our students change what they think is primarily a performance (even if it is), into a communication, where the content of the message is more important than an ideal, perfect (and unachievable) form of delivery.
      Is this something that you could work into your course?

      • Thanks so much for your reply! Yes, that’s very helpful. I won’t be asking my students to read aloud 20,000 words for sure, but it gives me an idea for an activity that would help them focus on communication. Something where each person has important information that everyone else needs to hear to put together to make a whole story or solve a problem (murder mystery comes to mind!). So they take turns to communicate their piece of information in front of the class. This way they’ll be focused on getting the information across clearly rather than focusing on their performance. An added benefit is that the audience would be paying attention!

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