Speech anxiety, also known as stage fright, refers to the feeling of anxiousness or fear associated with delivering a speech. The symptoms of speech anxiety typically involve physiological arousal (e.g., elevated heart rate), negative thoughts (e.g., being negatively evaluated), and behavioral disruptions (e.g., verbal disfluency; Ayres & Hopf 1993). According to Ayres et al. (in press), the study of speech anxiety can be traced back to ancient Greek rhetoricians 2,000 years ago, who viewed speech anxiety as arising from a lack of confidence or skills. Serious research using scientific methods did not begin until the mid-1930s, when psychologists developed ways to measure stage fright, and examined the causes and effects associated with communication fear. Following Clevenger’s (1959) synthesis article on stage fright, many communication scholars began to develop theories, measurement approaches, and interventions in the areas of communication apprehension and reticence, which refer to fear or anxiety across various communication situations.
Spielberger et al. (1970) distinguished between the concepts of state and trait anxiety. A state refers to a transitory condition varying over time and situations, whereas a trait is a more stable individual difference or personality characteristic. Accordingly, the causes of speech anxiety can be attributed to trait (enduring) or state (situational) factors. The trait explanations include learned helplessness, modeling, and genetic predisposition. From the “learned helplessness” perspective, people develop speech anxiety because they learn to associate negative outcomes with speaking, such as being ridiculed by peers. According to the “modeling” explanation, people develop speech anxiety when they cannot learn proper speaking skills from others. More recently, some scholars have argued that communication fear, such as speech anxiety, is mostly genetically determined. Despite these different explanations, many scholars hold the “interaction” view, i.e., that the interaction between gene and environment results in speech anxiety (Ayres et al. in press).
Regarding state anxiety, there are seven situational factors: novelty (new experience), formality (formal situation), conspicuousness (too noticeable), subordinate status (inferior to audience), unfamiliarity (unfamiliar audience), dissimilarity (different from audience), and degree of attention (too little or too much; Ayres et al. in press). McCroskey (1997b) added one more situational factor: degree of evaluation, which refers to whether the speech will be evaluated or graded. Although several situational causes are identified, many scholars believe that trait anxiety predisposes speakers to experience these situational factors in certain ways, which in turn affects their state anxiety level (Ayres et al. in press).
Although most explanations of speech anxiety have been based on the trait perspective, a few scholars have developed state anxiety theories from the situational perspective. One major development is action assembly theory, which posits that state anxiety arises because people cannot identify effective strategies or engage in appropriate behaviors to accomplish their goals in a given interaction (Greene & Sparks 1983). Concomitantly, social psychologists developed the self-presentation theory of social anxiety, positing that social anxiety is a function of one’s desire to make a particular impression and the perceived probability of making the desired impression on others. Thus, one would expect a speaker to experience high levels of speech anxiety when he or she wants to make a specific impression with speech and doubts the possibility of achieving such a goal.
More recently, Ayres et al. (in press) have constructed a component theory of state communication apprehension, in which state anxiety can be predicted by the interaction of the speaker’s nervous system sensitivity, and self-perception of motivation, negative evaluation, and communication competence. Specifically, speakers will experience high levels of state anxiety when they are very sensitive to environmental changes, are motivated to accomplish a goal via speech, anticipate being negatively evaluated by others, and perceive themselves as having low levels of speaking ability.
The three primary approaches to measuring trait and state public speaking anxiety are self-report scales, physiological instruments, and observers’ ratings. Self-report scales measure individuals’ feeling or thoughts associated with giving a speech; physiological instruments measure the degree of arousal experienced; and observers’ ratings assess behavioral disruptions. Self-report scales are the most widely employed approach. The specific measures for each approach are briefly introduced below.
Several self-report measures of speech anxiety have been developed during the past decades. According to McCroskey (1997a), the earliest developed scale is the Personal Report of Confidence as a Speaker, which has been demonstrated to be highly reliable and valid in numerous research studies. However, this scale is rarely employed today. A more frequently used scale is the Personal Report of Public Speaking Anxiety. This instrument is a 34-item, 5-point Likert scale. Respondents are instructed to indicate their level of agreement with statements such as “My thoughts become confused and jumbled when I am giving a speech.” This measure has been demonstrated to be highly reliable and valid. The most widely used scale of trait anxiety today is the public speaking subscale of the Personal Report of Communication Apprehension, which has 20-item and 24-item versions. The 24-item version includes six items for communication in each of four contexts: public, meetings, small groups, and dyads. This scale has been demonstrated to have high reliability and strong validity in numerous studies both nationally and internationally (McCroskey 1997a).
The state anxiety scale developed by Spielberger et al. (1970) is the most widely used measure of state anxiety today. This instrument has 20-item and 5-item versions. Both versions use a 5-point Likert scale, in which respondents are asked to indicate how they felt in the speech they have just completed by choosing a category from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” for each statement (e.g., “I feel nervous”). Both versions have high reliability and good validity.
Another self-report measure that has been used frequently is the Communication Anxiety Inventory developed by Booth-Butterfield and Gould (1986). This inventory has two separate scales for trait and state anxiety. The trait form assesses individuals’ predisposition to experience anxiety in three contexts – dyadic encounters, small group, and public speaking – while the state form asks respondents to indicate how they felt during a communication experience they have just completed. The trait form uses a fourpoint frequency scale ranging from “almost never” to “almost always.” The state form also uses a four-point scale, ranging from “not at all” to “very much so.” One example of the statements in the trait form is “I enjoy speaking in public,” and one example in the state form is “I felt calm when I was talking.” Both forms have satisfactory reliability and validity.
In addition to self-report measures, researchers use physiological measurement on speech anxiety. According to Beatty and Dobos (1997), the two most commonly used instruments are measures of heart rate and skin conductivity. For instance, speakers’ heart rates were measured continuously during a public speaking performance. Heart rates were recorded at one-minute intervals before, during, and after a speech. The heart rates of speakers generally increased slightly before a speech presentation, elevated dramatically when they began to speak, and then declined until the end of the speech. Several studies have also employed the galvanic skin response (measuring changes in the ability of the skin to conduct electricity during exposure to an emotional stimulus, such as giving a speech) to assess the effects of interventions on apprehension or anxiety, and some studies have recently started to use brain temperature to assess physiological response to public speaking.
In addition to self-report and physiological measurement, researchers have also used observers’ ratings to measure behavioral aspects of speech anxiety, such as verbal disfluency and tense bodily movement. Mulac and Sherman (1974) developed the Behavioral Assessment of Speech Anxiety. This 18-item instrument requires that trained observers rate the severity of occurrence of each behavior for a given speaker, as compared to the other speakers being rated, using a 10-point scale ranging from “not at all” to “strong.” Statistical analysis revealed four dimensions of this instrument: rigidity, inhibition, disfluency, and agitation. This instrument has been demonstrated to have high inter-observer reliability in numerous studies for the rating as a whole and for each dimension. In terms of validity, its ratings were negatively correlated with perceptions of speech skills and credibility. However, only a small relationship was found between observers’ ratings and speakers’ self-report anxiety level. That is, a speaker may feel quite nervous, but is able to control his or her behaviors so that observers are not able to detect any cue of nervousness. On the other hand, a speaker may feel calm but act in ways that observers perceive as signs of anxiousness, which may reduce his or her credibility.
In sum, these three approaches measure different aspects of speech anxiety: selfperceptions, physiological symptoms, and behavioral disruptions. For objective assessment of anxiety level, one can use all three methods and compare their results. If consistent results are found, one can be certain that the observed anxiety level is accurate. On the other hand, if the results conflict, it is likely that a speaker suffers only one or two sources of anxiety: negative thoughts, nervous feeling, or inadequate skills. Interventions are available to help reduce each source of anxiety.
- Ayres, J., & Hopf, T. S. (1993). Coping with speech anxiety. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
- Ayres, J., Hopf, T., Ayres, D. M., & Wongprasert, T. K (eds.) (in press). Avoiding communication: Shyness, reticence, and communication apprehension, 3rd edn. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Beatty, M. J., & Dobos, J. A. (1997). Physiological assessment. In J. A. Daly, J. C. McCroskey, J. Ayres, T. Hopf, & D. M. Ayres (eds.), Avoiding communication: Shyness, reticence, and communication apprehension, 2nd edn. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, pp. 217–230.
- Booth-Butterfield, S., & Gould, M. (1986). The communication anxiety inventory: Validation of state- and context-communication apprehension. Communication Quarterly, 34, 194–205.
- Clevenger, T., Jr. (1959). A synthesis of experimental research in stage fright. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 45, 134–145.
- Greene, J. O., & Sparks, G. G. (1983). Explication and test of a cognitive model of communication apprehension. Human Communication Research, 9, 349–366.
- McCroskey, J. C. (1997a). Self-report measurement. In J. A. Daly, J. C. McCroskey, J. Ayres, T. Hopf, & D. M. Ayres (eds.), Avoiding communication: Shyness, reticence, and communication apprehension, 2nd edn. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, pp. 191–216.
- McCroskey, J. C. (1997b). Willingness to communicate, communication apprehension, and selfperceived communication competence conceptualizations and perspectives. In J. A. Daly, J. C. McCroskey, J. Ayres, T. Hopf, & D. M. Ayres (eds.), Avoiding communication: Shyness, reticence, and communication apprehension, 2nd edn. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, pp. 75–108.
- Mulac, A., & Sherman, A. R. (1974). Behavioral assessment of speech anxiety. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 60, 134–143.
- Schlenker, B. R., & Leary, M. R. (1982). Social anxiety and self-presentation: A conceptual model. Psychological Bulletin, 92, 641–669.
- Spielberger, C. D., Gorsuch, R. L., & Lushene, R. E. (1970). Manual for the state-trait anxiety inventory. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychological Corporation.
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