Speaking Anxiety and golden retrievers

A couple of months ago I had a student in my group who got so nervous when he faced the other students to deliver his presentation that I was afraid he was going to faint. He was trembling, he looked pale except for the red spots in his neck, he could only make choking noises and his eyes were getting bigger and bigger. Some people say that when you are nervous about speaking in public you should imagine that the audience is naked. If he was trying this it wasn’t helping very much. In fact, he looked as if he was imagining that he was standing in front of a pride of hungry lions.

You don’t want fainting students in your group. It is bad for morale. The student who has fainted will feel embarrassed, and the other students will feel disheartened. They still have to do their presentation and nervousness is contagious. So after a few seconds I stopped him and sat him down in a chair in front of the group, facing the other students. “Do they still look scary when you’re sitting down?” I asked. He looked around carefully, disbelievingly, as if I had just performed a magic trick. Then he brightened up and set “No, this is much better, thanks.”

I let him do the entire presentation sitting down. It was still rubbish: he got stuck a couple of times, stammered a lot, forgot all about his PowerPoint and he clearly had not practised, but at least he was talking and he knew exactly how to prepare for next week. He got a big round of applause from the other students when he finished, which must have done wonders for his confidence.

In the next meeting I told him to sit on a table. One step up as it were. And so we continued. After a few sessions he was able to deliver his presentation standing up unaided. In the end his final presentation was actually quite good and he passed the course with flying colours.

So what can you pick up from this? Well, first of all it shows that you should practise your presentations in front of an audience. That is the only way you will experience what that feels like. And yes, practising in front of your friends may feel awkward but you can bet it feels a lot more awkward to ‘practise’ in front of a real audience.

Secondly, many people who have speaking anxiety can be helped by bringing down the level of formality. In this case my student felt a lot more comfortable when he sat down. He might also have benefited from the “coffee break exercise”: students walk around the classroom, meet a colleague and tell them about their presentation. If you repeat this a couple of times the students will know each other a bit better, which makes them less scary during the presentation. And besides, they will all have talked about their presentations a couple of times, which is good practice.

P.S.: A colleague of mine recently told me that she tells her students not to imagine that the people in the audience are naked, but that they are dogs. Preferably golden retrievers. Golden retrievers will love you on sight and they will believe anything you say. She says it works wonders.

I don’t know. Give it a try and let me know if it works.