Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Yale Teaching Center

Public Speaking for Teachers I:
Lecturing Without Fear

This module covers the material in the first of a two-part series on public speaking for teachers. You will find discussion about the psychology and mechanics of speaking which should be useful for future lectures, job talks, discussion leading, etc.

Public speaking, it is commonly said, is one of the biggest fears which people have (in some surveys, second only to death). In academic training, speaking skills are rarely formally taught, which may increase anxiety and discomfort. Yet public speaking is one of the most important skills of a future scholar, and hence is a skill which is commonly tested—from in-class lectures to formal research presentations. The goal of this module is to provide some core materials one can use to being the journey of gaining comfort in public speaking. Under each section, you will see specific tips for how to make public speaking more comfortable.

1. Recognize that public speaking is an everyday activity.

Much anxiety over public speaking starts from the fact that we presume public speaking is unnatural, that one has to do 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 training 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 advisor, introducing oneself to others at Orientation, dealing with family, chatting on Instant Messenger, participating in a group/team discussion, having meals 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 your campus, dining halls, etc. Note that this is not much different from when one has to introduce oneself in an interview, conference or other “high stakes” environments.

2. Recognize the power of fear management.

Expert public speaking requires transferring the comfort we have on a day-to-day basis to formal environments when we are expected to talk to others. Part of the reason people lack this fear is because they make incorrect assumptions of those who are expert public speakers:

  • That expert speaking is innate: all public speakers had a learning period – it is just that some got an early start by participating in social activities which forced them to get comfortable. (i.e. church, debate, theater)
  • That great speakers are fearless: anyone who says this is being less than candid. 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 of places where such tactics are used effectively:

  • football coach pep talks
  • use of “lucky charms” like teddy bears, pieces of clothing, jewelry
  • listening to “pump up” music on an iPod or other listening device
  • having supportive friends / a cheering crowd in the audience

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

Great resources for this tip:

  • any video of a basketball or football coach pep talk
  • Anthony Robbins, Unlimited Power
  • drama, theater or debate coaches

3. Handle questions fearlessly.

Handling Q & A is often one of the most scary and nerve wracking aspects of public speaking, especially in the life of a graduate student. With some specific tips and practice, it can be a very useful part of any speaker's skill set.

  • Tip 1: Do not let difficult questions scare you. Most assume that tough questioning indicates that the audience is unpersuaded by your 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 can help alleviate nervousness and improve performance.
  • Tip 2: Preparation can improve performance. Making prepared responses for common questions increases confidence and impresses audiences. Most 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. So is having backup slides.
  • Tip 3: Having a structured method of answering questions can improve one's persuasiveness. Often the manner in which one answers questions matters as much as the content 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. Key body posture things to avoid: arm folding, hands clutched together in front (i.e. the fig-leaf position), hand in pocket, etc.

Module developed by Anthony Berryhill and Paul Lagunes, 2008