by Steven Dube
(Part one in a series of articles on developing professional skills in the writing classroom.)
Jerry Seinfeld has a bit about public speaking in which he references “a study that said speaking in front of a crowd is considered the number one fear of the average person… Number two was death.”
Then he pauses in amazement. “Death is number two!”
The punch line: “This means to the average person, if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
This fear is not something I considered when I first had my students read aloud as part of in-class workshops. It was simply how we edited—they’d bring in drafts of their essays and read from them. It had nothing to do with any plan to teach public speaking. But, in fact, this is usually the activity my students dread most, at least initially. Students typically have a much bigger problem reading out loud than editing or writing. They grumble, they give long preambles before they begin, and they ask if they can go last.
And yet, though not what I intended, this has become one of the most successful elements of my class. I see the dividends in end-of-semester portfolio cover letters that tell similar stories about students who were afraid at first to read their work out loud but ended up either looking forward to the activity or at least got used to it (OK, some of them still hate it). One student recently wrote that, after her Writing 102 class, she is “no longer afraid of public speaking.”
I find such results amazing because I didn’t really do anything. I don’t comment much, if at all, on my students’ reading ability other than an occasional statement of general praise such as, “You read that well.”
Exposure And Response Prevention
But maybe that’s enough. The lesson illustrated above is related to a theory I’ve read a great deal about lately—exposure and response prevention therapy, a technique for alleviating anxiety that involves doing the anxiety-provoking task in a safe environment. The ‘exposure’ is the anxious feeling they get when they read aloud. The ‘response prevention’ comes from not avoiding speaking. You actually have to feel the anxiety and read anyway. In other words, if my students have become more confident speakers, it wasn’t through my specific instruction so much as that they exposed their fears as being false. Of late, I’ve been assigning extra credit presentations as part of the class, which allows students to get even more exposure. That’s the key; with exposure and response prevention, instead of avoiding the activity, you actually look for as many chances as possible to engage with it.
Teachers can relate. Some of us got into teaching feeling perhaps a bit uncomfortable speaking in front of a group. Some maybe were more comfortable. Either way, you had no choice but to speak in front of the class. The more you did so the easier it became. At the core of my approach is giving students the same opportunity.
OK, It’s Not Always That Easy
Sometimes students do still struggle with speaking, or they’ll refuse to speak in the first place. One student recently emailed me to say that she was simply too afraid to read in class—just the thought made her stomach hurt. Despite my encouragement, the student continued to refuse. She wasn’t going to succeed in public speaking because she was avoiding it. Instead of exposing the fear as false, this avoidance only made things worse. She kept on putting off reading and only became more and more anxious as a result.
I wasn’t sure what to do about this avoidance until I read Stopping The Noise In Your Head by Reid Wilson, a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders. In his book, Wilson describes how people tend to avoid feared situations, much like what my students face, and suggests an unusual but powerful approach, a paradoxical approach.
Wilson notes that when most of us are taking on a difficult task, such as speaking in public, we have a lot of anxiety. But what if we alter our negative mindset? To illustrate this alternative, Wilson describes the first time he was ever asked to lead group therapy as a graduate student, a very anxiety-inducing activity. But then something changed: “[O]ur professor, Dr. John Gladfelter, introduced the task. ‘Here’s the assignment: I want you to be the worst group therapist you can be. Just be as bad, as incompetent as you can possibly manage’” (189). It was a startling change in mindset. Wilson describes realizing the method to the madness: “we relaxed by receiving a reprieve from having to do everything perfectly. As we took our attention off our fear of failing, we stopped focusing inward. We had more outward attention available” (189).
This story resonated with me because in recent years I’ve been experimenting with many paradoxical techniques in my classes. Specifically, I’ve been encouraging students to make as many mistakes as possible. The goal—to make them feel more comfortable reading from their drafts in class. After reading Wilson’s book, I realized I could apply this approach to speaking skills as well.
It’s an approach that addresses the true problem students face, not any particular deficit in speaking skills, but instead the nervous chatter streaming through their brains. “What if I mess up?” we often ask ourselves. “What if I’m awkward?” Usually the conclusion is extreme: “I’d be embarrassed, humiliated.” Of course, this self-talk only makes us more awkward and leads to more self-consciousness—the exact result you feared in the first place.
Now, when my students express anxiety about reading aloud (or writing), I try to playfully defuse any negative self-talk. “Make as many mistakes as possible!” I tell them. “Try to be as awkward as possible!” Sometimes, I go even further: “Can you make the worst presentation ever?” There’s lots of room for improvisation and creativity with this paradoxical approach.
The reason why this approach helps to defuse the anxiety is simple. If we tell ourselves, “This presentation must be flawless,” we, not to mention our audience, are likely to leave less than satisfied. If we tell ourselves, “I want to make a presentation full of mistakes, and I want to feel anxious the whole way through,” we’re actually less likely to be anxious.
Students tend to enjoy this new, exciting attitude. It helps them relax and stay in the moment. It keeps them focused on what they’re saying—and it’s more fun!
Seinfeld, Jerry. “Jerry Seinfeld: I’m Telling You For The Last Time”. HBO, 1998.
Wilson, Reid. “Stopping The Noise In Your Head: The New Way To Overcome Anxiety
And Worry”. Health Communications Inc., 2016.