Speak easy : Public speaking ranks as America’s no. 1 fear
A near-empty box of tissues sits tauntingly upon an unforgiving steel-legged table. A trash can leans against the wall, a bottomless pail containing stories of those whose nerves got the best of them.
‘Any volunteers?’ asks Dan Mistich, a teaching assistant and communication and rhetorical studies graduate student.
It’s presentation time, but nobody moves.
Moments later, a restless freshman sitting in his corner seat stands up and strides confidently to face his audience. For a moment, all eyes narrow – a mounted digital camera zooms into focus – targeting the student in front of the room.
‘I’m going to talk to you about the word nigger,’ said Josh White, emphasizing the syllables of the last word.
The provocative introduction suddenly commanded the attention of his tired and distracted audience.
Fortunately, the freshman communication and rhetorical studies major does not appear to be shaking in his thick, black boots, nor does he reach for the box of tissues in despair.
After all, he is being graded.
White continues to argue that the word ‘nigger’ should not be socially acceptable. He asks interactive, engaging questions and shows Dave Chappelle clips. The TA is scoring him on public speaking gusto, organization and credibility.
This is the CRS 225: Public Advocacy Recitation class, where Mistich teaches students how develop oral rhetoric techniques that can be employed for the rest of their lives.
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And though it is a required course for CRS majors and a preferred course for students of the Martin J. Whitman School of Management and the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University does not mandate public speaking courses for all students.
Yet public and private universities across the nation maintain divided opinions about instituting public speaking course requirements to all students.
Most all schools acknowledge the importance of providing courses for students to communicate orally, but 50 percent of all universities require students to pass a public speaking course in order to graduate, said Mark Fernando, marketing and public relations manager for the National Communication Association.
‘Helpful? Yes. Enjoyable? No,’ said junior CRS major Rosalind Dean of the required CRS 225 course.
Even so, Dean decided to squeeze in her presentation about homosexual marriage rights 10 minutes before class ended. She had been crafting and recrafting her presentation all class, and she was not going to let her argument slip by until next week.
‘I know you’re all upset, but I want to go today,’ Dean told her peers.
But not everyone was as anxious to present in front of others. One out of every five people older than a fifth grader experience extreme communication apprehension.
Nearly 70 percent of Americans have a speaking anxiety, Fernando said, and 20 percent are anxious about verbal communication in general.
From a conceptual standpoint, a mandatory public speaking class would be helpful at SU, but it would be a considerable cost to offer that kind of class to all majors, said Kendall Phillips, chair of the communication and rhetorical studies department.
‘From a logical standpoint, there are necessary limits – we have to give students time to speak,’ Phillips said.
In one CRS 225 recitation period, only five of the 16 students in attendance had time to present.
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Yet there is something about being engaged in spoken discourse, Phillips said. ‘People who are confident tend to get hired quicker.’
In business industries, the ability to develop effective messages in different settings, whether it is going to a school board meeting or being active in a civil case, is recognized, said Christopher Johnstone, basic course director and associate professor of rhetoric at Pennsylvania State University.
‘A person who is not able to present effective thoughts with language and illustrations is basically without a voice,’ Johnstone said.
Voicing student demand for more public speaking classes is not the problem at SU. In fact, Phillips has seen an increased demand in the last several years.
If university-wide public speaking courses were required on the same scale as the mandatory WRT 105 class, it would be difficult to find a population of faculty who could do the job with vim and vigor, Phillips said. The quantity of teaching resources depends on the amount of incoming freshmen. Currently, it is based on the concrete number of students taking the communications courses, he said.
‘I think more and more students are aware that we live in a dynamic society, and they are starting to realize what they need is broad skills that let them adapt,’ Phillips said.
The popularity of communications courses has already been recognized and adapted for engineering students, Phillips said. ‘At the end of the day, you have to make yourself clear.’
Public speaking is the No. 1 fear in America, Phillips said, but since most CRS students elected to be in that major, there is not too much throwing up or passing out before a presentation.
Still, the garbage pail is always there.
Throughout the semester, Dean, the junior CRS major, has learned tips on how to keep an audience’s attention, when to supplement speech with visual aids and how to avoid fallacies. Practicing the techniques cuts down on anxiety, she said.
Research shows that people’s anxiety peaks 30 seconds before they have to speak, Phillips said. It’s like a rollercoaster; the hardest part is the anticipation as the car slowly grinds to the top of the fragile structure.
For some, the apprehension is so great that they can’t get over the tipping point and begin to relax. To reach the comfort zone, students are taught structuring techniques to wind in and out of different points, Phillips said.
The foundational principle of oral rhetoric is to perform a way of reasoning in a way that seems persuasive to someone else, Phillips said. And after learning basic performance structure, the rest fits in naturally.
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And even those who teach public speaking have challenges to overcome.
The CRS department has found that some students ‘don’t feel the need to study public speaking, but the sentiment usually comes from non-majors,’ Phillips said. It is also these people who are afraid of speaking, he added.
Within the department, classes tend to focus on structure. So the most common complaint is that students want to be more creative, Phillips said.
Phillips compares teaching rhetoric to teaching basketball. A professor isn’t going to show videos of Carmelo Anthony swishing hoops with his eyes closed. Instead, students must learn the basics before they can get creative.
‘This is not free speech, it’s effective speech,’ Phillips said.
Effective communication enables students to express themselves in the most meaningful way possible. This is a performance anxiety that is not unlike any other command performance, Johnstone, from Penn State, said.
‘There is a lot riding on the way you present yourself,’ Johnstone said. ‘For example, people get tongue tied when meeting a boyfriend or girlfriend’s parents, or bringing a new date home for the first time.’
However, there are some students whose anxiety is so great that is even at a social party, they are wallflowers at the fringe, Johnstone said.
At schools with mandatory public speaking courses, like Penn Sate, 10 percent of students leave and enter another school without the requirement by sophomore year. And though there is no solid data available, approximately 5-10 percent of students nationwide do not graduate because the public requirement was not fulfilled, Fernando said.
It would be a considerable effort to mandate an oral presentation course, Phillips said, though Penn State has made it a priority since the 1870s.
‘The university mandates it, and we basically teach a service course,’ Johnstone said.
Penn State offers a special version of the communication course for those students who suffer from anxiety so severe that it is paralytic, Johnstone said. Interviews are conducted to determine if a student should be placed in the ‘Option D’ class, which focuses on gradual systematic desensitization.
In the ‘Option D’ course, exercises range in focus from students acting as if they were engaged in conversation at a party scene to presenting speeches to gradually larger groups.
Some students with high anxiety drop the course up to four times before they can muster an entire semester of facing an audience, Johnstone said.
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‘Even though it’s a digital society, interpersonal communication is more important now than ever,’ said Melissa Beall, chair of the National Communication Association Basic Communication Courses and a professor at the University of Northern Iowa.
The high-speed digital evolution makes it difficult to remember or even think about the importance of basic communication, Beall said.
The mandatory public speaking classes at UNI emphasize the importance of tuning into the audience and making the speech memorable. Communicational aids, such as the Powerpoint, are used in conjunction with the speech discourse. Points are taken off presentation grades if the technology overpowers the oral speech, Beall said.
Beall surveys local businesses to determine the qualities that they look for in prospective employees and finds managers telling her repeatedly that employees need to be effective in verbal and written communication, she said.
As a function of communication apprehension, many students are not admitted to graduate programs or employment positions of choice, and universities are working on boosting their students’ level of rhetorical enthusiasm to set their graduates apart from the competition.
At Pepsi-Cola and other large-scale companies, public speaking is an important component, especially to marketing departments. Exciting marketing and sophisticated oral speech can only make a company more interactive and appealing, said Michelle Naughton, public relations representative for Pepsi-Cola.
‘Face-to-face communication will always be important in every industry,’ Naughton said.
Even large-scale Fortune 500 companies like Pepsi ensure that their marketing professionals hone their interpersonal skills. ‘We try to employ refresher courses to make sure that we all feel comfortable,’ Naughton said.
Anxiety will always exist, but as long as people are practicing and getting up in front of those critical audiences, the adrenaline can be channeled positively, Naughton said.
‘To an extent, it makes you do a better job,’ Beall, NCA chair, said. ‘I spend a lot of time just going over how important it is to control it.’
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