Synopsis: Why are people so afraid to give speeches in public? It’s the cause of sweaty palms, headaches, nausea and weak knees, to mention only a few of the problems speakers experience. We talk to a psychologist and a speech educator about why anxiety builds when we have to give a public address, and how we can use this stress to our benefit.

Host: Marty Peterson. Guests:  Jeremy Jamieson, Assistant Professor of Social Psychology, University of Rochester, NY ; Philip Dalton Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Chair of that department, Hofstra University, NY.

 The Fear of Public Speaking

Marty Peterson: It’s been said that public speaking is one of the most feared and stressful activities an individual can undertake. But, why is that? What is it about standing in front of a group of people for a few minutes and presenting information on a topic you know? Why do our hands sweat, our hearts race, and our minds sometimes go blank?

Jeremy Jamieson: Anytime we’re getting social feedback, anytime we’re being evaluated by other people in our groups… these things are really important to people because our survival depends on it. And so if you can essentially lose social standing then your survival is actually impacted negatively and that’s why we care so much about social evaluation.

Marty Peterson: That’s Jeremy Jamieson, Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Rochester in New York. He and his colleagues studied the stress of public speaking, including the signs that a speaker is feeling the pressure. These reactions, though, need to be interpreted carefully.

Jeremy Jamieson: Pretty much the signs that we notice, things like our heart might be racing or our palms might be sweaty, these things just mean that we’re feeling a lot of arousal. So the sympathetic nervous system is one of our body’s stress response systems, and when it comes online it comes online because we’re feeling a lot of this arousal. And that’s all it’s saying. Those signs, they don’t have any valiance component to them. Having sweaty palms or racing heart it’s not necessarily bad or good. The valiance in what we call approach and avoidance motivation components, where those come from is how we appraise both the situation and our body’s responses. So our cognitive perceptions of what’s going on.

Marty Peterson: To find out what was going on, Jamieson wired up two groups of test subjects to monitor their hearts and blood flow. Then he gave each group three minutes to prepare a five-minute speech on their strong and weak points. The subjects gave their talks in front of evaluators who gave out non-verbal negative feedback – frowning, furrowing their brows, writing things down – to heighten the anxiety levels of the subjects. The only difference between the two groups of subjects is that one group was instructed that stress can be a good thing.

Jeremy Jamieson: The common theme behind these instructions was that the stress you’re experiencing, especially the arousal you’re experiencing with stress it’s not bad. So people automatically assume that any time they’re feeling kind of their heart racing or their palms sweating that this is a negative sign. That they’re going to do bad on whatever task is coming up after that, but that’s not necessarily the case. People can perceive arousal as a coping tool. This is actually helping you do well. So we go into talking about how if we didn’t have these responses our ancestors wouldn’t have survived so this is a very adaptive thing that we have. There’s a reason why our bodies have stress responses. We talk about how an increase in arousal can help deliver oxygenated blood around the body, especially to the brain. We talk about how these kinds of approaches to our stress responses are associated with improvements in cognitive performance. So people getting this information before, half the people are getting the information before they begin their speech about the benefits of stress arousal.

Marty Peterson: And the outcome? Jamieson says the group that was shown that stress can be beneficial did better than the group that received no instruction before speaking.

Jeremy Jamieson: We found that the people who were given the reappraisal instructions, so who were told to reframe the meaning of stress, they had much more adaptive sort of stress responses than those who didn’t get the instructions. And what we mean by adaptive responses is that we weren’t decreasing the amount of overall arousal. So these people were still highly aroused so they had a lot of sympathetic nervous system activation, but the key was that the type of stress was changing. And these individuals were pumping more blood through the body per minute. And more blood means more oxygen is getting out to these peripheral areas and that is a good thing, usually for any kind of performance including speaking performance or test performance.

Marty Peterson: Think of world-class athletes preparing to perform. They feel anxious, and can exhibit sweaty palms and increased heart rates because their jobs are stressful. Jamieson says that the difference is that in their minds, they reframe that stress to be a good thing that they can use to their advantage, and they end up performing better. He also says that this ability to reframe the meaning of stress can have a residual effect…

Jeremy Jamieson: We had them do an intentional bias task, and what this task was getting at was whether people were being vigilant for threat cues in the future, so coming up. And what we found was that the reappraisal participants were less vigilant for threat cues after the speech than people who were not given the instructions. And the reason why that finding I think is important is because it can help inform how these individuals would respond to future instances of stress. So if you are very vigilant for threatening information some ambiguous feedback you might get from somebody will be construed as negative feedback, and then that might elicit as sort of negative stress response. On the other hand if you’re not vigilant for these threat cues an ambiguous situation might just be seen as neutral or even maybe slightly positive, and you won’t have the same kind of response. And so I thought that was interesting.

Marty Peterson: As we said, the fear of a poor evaluation can lead to the stress that people have when they speak in public. But why do people think they’ll be evaluated poorly?   Philip Dalton is an Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Chair of that department at Hofstra University in New York. He says that among his students, not being prepared is a big anxiety producer.

Phillip Dalton: A lot of people have anxiety in the buildup to the event and as a consequence of that they don’t prepare sometimes. And then when the event time comes there’s kind of a panic, a realization that I may not be prepared, and some of that may be real, and some of that may be built up in their mind, this feeling that they’re not prepared. Which is kind of normal, if you think about it, if this is an activity that you’ve not done a whole lot of in your life, you don’t have a real sense of what it means to be adequately prepared. So, you can overthink that and let it get ahead of you.

Marty Peterson: Dalton says that part of being poorly prepared is not being able to impart information to your audience in a cogent and logical manner.

Phillip Dalton: Another problem I see with a lot of students in public speaking situations is not knowing well how to organize their thoughts and ideas. I think a lot of students aren’t familiar with the inventionary process where you come to know better through the process of engaging your ideas which ideas are good, which ones are defensible, which ones have good support for them. That is a product of writing them down or talking with others about them and being vaguely familiar with what you want to say is not the same as planning what you want to say. And it’s in the planning that you get to know well what you can get away with, and it’s also in the planning that you build up a comfort with the subject matter.

Marty Peterson: Jeremy Jamieson says that real practice is a great way to reduce negative stress behind the lectern.

Jeremy Jamieson: What practice does is it increases our appraisal of our ability to cope with something. So if we practice a lot, we’ve done a lot of hard work that went into this, we are confident that we have the ability to address the stressful situation, because this speech is very well learned, we put a lot of hard work into preparing it, into making it. And so we appraise our coping resources as high and we do better. Also working off of drive theory you see that people when they can almost omnitize things so that the speech is so well learned that you kind of give it from memory, you could just kind of give it automatically, you can blank out and just go. Those situations can be good too, when you’re in these kind of public speaking situations and there is this high level of arousal, that arousal can help facilitate that dominant response, which is the well learned speech in that case. So there is reason to think that practice is a very good thing for preparing public speeches.

Marty Peterson: Philip Dalton says that relaxing before giving a speech can help, and so can knowing how to breathe correctly during your address.

Phillip Dalton: Another thing I tell students is to control their breathing. It sounds a little strange but I very often watch students speak and they lose control of their breath. And there’s a difference between speaking from your diaphragm and speaking from your chest, and when you speak from your chest you lose control of the force of your voice. But the student getting up there speaking doesn’t know that that’s what’s happening, they just feel nervous. If they learn to speak from their diaphragm and to project from their diaphragm they end up with more air. They also breath longer or more often which gives them some pauses and a little moment to kind of relax.

Marty Peterson: Finally, Dalton says that speakers should be aware that they, themselves, often over-estimate the amount of nervousness the audience picks up on. Most of the time listeners don’t know that you have sweaty palms, flushing in the face or shaking knees, so it doesn’t pay to worry that they do. He also suggests that if you are asked to deliver an address, study the elements of a good speech before you begin writing.

Phillip Dalton: They include an introduction, body and a conclusion. You should have a thought or point or thesis, and you should convey reasons to believe your thesis if it’s a persuasive speech or support if it’s just informative. And you should use things like transitions and sign postings, so as you go from one point to another, you segue and you indicate where you’re going, so there’s a kind of meta-awareness of the content of your speech. And when you know those things the idea of getting up and speaking in front of a group becomes less daunting. You’re filling in the blanks, but you know what blanks to fill. That’s the comforting thing.

Marty Peterson: You can find more about Philip Dalton and the Department of Rhetoric at and on Facebook. To read up on Jeremy Jamieson and his research, log onto For more information about all of our guests, you can always visit our site at Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.