"Facing the Fear": Methods for Addressing Speech Anxiety in Public Speaking Class

Lauren Mackenzie and John Saunders


A fear of public speaking has plagued most Americans at one time or another. As speech communication and/or public speaking instructors, most of us are faced weekly with the challenge of easing our students' communication apprehension. Sometimes it is difficult to know where to begin when faced with 25 students who are looking to you to turn them into polished public speakers on the first day of class.

To this end, we offer two very straightforward but successful activities for the first two days of public speaking class. The first reveals the normalcy of speech anxiety through the presentation of a children's book, and the second activity serves as a gateway for helping our students understand why many Americans fear public speaking the way they do.

Learning Objectives

  • To help students realize that fear of public speaking can be managed effectively
  • To create a non-threatening environment in which students receive positive feedback about their performances

Preparation for the Project

You will need a copy of Helen Lester's Hooway for Wodney Wat and copies of the Top Ten Fears for students to complete.

Activity 1

On the first day of class, after going through the normal necessary information, we read Hooway for Wodney Wat by Helen Lester. This story is about a small rodent who is riduculed because of his speech impediment. Once a bully comes to class, he is especially afraid. Wodney gets chosen to be the leader of Simon Says. Throughout the game, his speaking ability (or inability as he sees it) frustrates the bully to the point where she leaves forever. His confidence increases through the game as he sees the effects on the other rodents and the bully. Once the bully is gone, Wodney and the other rodents readily recognize that it was only through Wodney’s speaking ability that the class is now rid of the bully. He becomes the hero of the class.

Once the story is finished, we ask why we would read such a story on the first day of a public speaking class. The students generally pick up on ideas of not making fun of speech impediments, a speaker can be effective despite what they consider personal flaws, and, most importantly, that everyone has speech anxiety. We highlight this last issue to establish that we know everyone in the class has some level of speech anxiety and that this is normal. Only through actually giving speeches and working to get better can a speaker gain some of the confidence that is a key part of public speaking. We think this is a good way to begin a semester since the process Wodney goes through, while very brief, is similar to the process the students will go through during the semester.

Activity 2

"Fear Factor" is an activity designed to help public speaking instructors ease into the first week of class, and it works best on the second day of the semester. It can be used to help students overcome their fear of public speaking, and it allows them to see that they are not alone in their (potential) communication apprehension.

The activity begins with a handout asking students to rate a list of ten "common fears" (i.e.; snakes, heights, dark, confined spaces, public speaking, etc.) according to how much they fear each one on a scale from 1-10. After they do that, the activity continues by asking students to get out of their seats and stand up in a horseshoe shape against the wall according to what number they assigned to "public speaking" on the list of fears 1 . We ask the students who rated public speaking a "1" (most feared) to start at the left hand side of the room, and then students line up in order from 1-10. A discussion follows this activity that asks one student from each assigned number to discuss what about public speaking scares him/her most. We then review some common fears about public speaking reported in Osborn & Osborn’s (2003) Public Speaking text (i.e.; "mind going blank", "embarrassing myself", "uncontrollable shaking", etc.) which reveals why public speaking continues to be dreaded by so many Americans.


All public speaking students have some level of speech anxiety. Due to this commonality, an urgency exists to address this fear at the beginning of the course. While students tend to feel completely at ease talking with small groups of friends, the formality of public speaking in a classroom can often serve as a catalyst for this fear. The two methods presented here both legitimize students’ feelings and establish a collectivity to address the issue of speech anxiety.

Additional Resources

For a list of relevant links to many websites concerning speech anxiety, look at: www.chemistrycoach.com/lbe6.htm#Speaking

Also for parameters for classes specifically for students with severe speech anxiety, look at: http://cas.la.psu.edu/undrgrad/cas100d.htm

An excellent textbook for addressing fears about public speaking, A Speaker’s Guidebook (O’Hair, Stewart, & Rubenstein, 2007), can be found at: http://bedfordstmartins.com/speakersguide

1 - Please see www.oncourseworkshop.com for activities using this particular structure of student involvement.