Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Public Speaking for Teachers I: Lecturing Without Fear

This module is the first in a two-part series on public speaking for teachers. You will find discussion about the psychology and mechanics of speaking that should be useful for future lectures, conferences, presentations and talks (including job talks), etc.

Public speaking, it is commonly said, is one of the most pervasive fears (in some surveys, second only to death). It is estimated that 75% of all people suffer from fear of public speaking. In academic training, speaking skills are rarely taught in any formal sense, which may increase anxiety and discomfort. Yet public speaking is one of the most important skills for scholars, and hence a skill which is commonly tested—from lectures to formal research presentations.

The goal of this module is to provide some core materials one can use to begin the journey of becoming comfortable with speaking in public. Each section, below, contains specific tips for how to make public speaking less daunting.

I. Recognize that public speaking is an everyday activity

Much anxiety over public speaking starts from the fact that we presume public speaking to be unnatural, or that one has to act in a “special way” when giving a formal talk. In fact, the opposite is true: public speaking is something one practices on a daily basis: anytime we speak with another person, we are calling on (and honing) our speaking skills. As teachers/academics, we are public speakers whenever we talk about our research at conferences, workshops, etc.

Ways in which we are public speakers/presenters everyday:

  • Social gatherings
  • Speaking to one’s colleagues/mentor/adviser
  • Participating in committee work or faculty/departmental meetings
  • Introducing oneself to others at orientations or other large gatherings
  • Dealing with family
  • Skyping
  • Participating in a group/team discussion
  • Sharing a meal in a dining hall, etc.

Although the form may vary, we are always communicating with others in a public forum. Many people suffer in “public speaking” because they try to change their speaking patterns, attitudes, etc. when it is time to give an official presentation. Much of the specific training in public speaking is designed to force oneself to go back to what people do normally on an everyday basis.

Possible exercise to practice this tip: introduce yourself to random people on campus, in the dining halls, etc. Note that this is not much different from introducing yourself in an interview, conference or other “high stakes” environment.

II. Recognize the power of fear management

Expert public speaking requires transferring the comfort we have in low-stakes interactions to formal environments when we are expected to talk to others.

Some incorrect assumptions about those who are expert public speakers:

  • That expert speaking is innate.
    • Instead, all public speakers have a learning period — it is just that some got an early start than others by participating in social activities that forced them to develop a comfort zone (i.e. church, debate, theater, recitals — even living in a large family)
  • That great speakers are fearless.
    • All speakers have fear — they just learn to manage it.

Fear management requires reinterpreting public speaking environments in ways that promote positive performance. See the following handouts for specific examples:

Examples concrete ways to manage fear:

  • Channel a coach-like pep talk…in your head
  • Breathe in and out in a deliberate fashion, drawing in breaths from your belly rather than your chest
  • Use “lucky charms” like teddy bears, pieces of clothing, jewelry
  • Listen to “pump up” music on an iPod or other listening device
  • Seed the audience with supportive friends or friendly faces

All effective public speakers, consciously or not, use these tactics to improve their performance. Doing so consciously and consistently allows a speaker to minimize nervousness at any time.

III. Handle questions fearlessly

Handling Q & A is one of the more intimidating, nerve-wracking aspects of public speaking, whether the speaker is a graduate student or seasoned professor. With some specific tips and practice, the Q&A session can become one of the strongest parts of your repertory.

  • Tip 1: Do not let difficult questions scare you. Most assume that tough questioning indicates that the audience is unpersuaded by one’s argument and presentation. Very often the reverse is true, especially in academic audiences, where it is called “engaging with the material.” Seeing a tough question as an opportunity may help alleviate nervousness and improve performance.
  • Tip 2: Preparation can improve performance. Anticipating possible or common questions and pre-preparing responses increases confidence and impresses audiences. Many public speakers secretly hope that certain tough questions are never asked when, in fact, being ready to deal with tough issues head-on can increase persuasiveness. Having pre-scripted outlines or word-for-word responses may be especially useful.
  • Tip 3: Having a structured method of answering questions can improve one’s persuasiveness. Often the manner in which one answers a question matters as much as the content of the answer itself. Structuring responses can help significantly. See the handout for methods of how to answer questions and how to handle situations where one does not know how to answer a question.
  • Tip 4: Consider your posture and body language. Avoid: folded arms across chest, hands clutched together in front (i.e. the fig-leaf position), hands in your pocket, and other hostile- or defensive-seeming positions. Practice what to do with your hands by watching videos of public speakers, classical singers in concert, etc.

Get online feedback as you practice your speech

The Poorvu Center offers free access to PitchVantage, an online program designed to improve public speaking skills by providing real-time feedback on a practice speech. PitchVantage also offers tutorials on delivery, design, and responding to your audience.  Access PitchVantage here.