Stage fright is the anxiety and nervousness people experience when delivering oral presentations. In the field of communication, stage fright has also been studied under a variety of rubrics including public speaking anxiety, reticence, and audience anxiety. It is one of the oldest topics that communication scholars have studied empirically (Clevenger 1959), perhaps because it profoundly affects so many. In survey after survey of people’s greatest fears, giving speeches always appears toward the top of the list.
Given this, it is not surprising that stage fright is a popular topic in textbooks on public speaking. Speakers are not the only people who experience stage fright; musicians, actors, and dancers also often have it. The emphasis in this article is on the stage fright experienced by speakers because that is where the bulk of communication scholarship is focused.
Stage fright is conceptualized in two basic ways. The first is as a trait-like disposition – some people are more uncomfortable and nervous when talking to audiences than others. The second is as a response to particular situations – everyone gets nervous sometimes when they make speeches.
Dispositional Stage Fright
The majority of academic research on stage fright focuses on dispositional anxiety. It is important to distinguish the research on dispositional stage fright from a larger body of scholarship on communication apprehension. While the roots of research on communication apprehension lie in stage fright, in the past two decades the communication apprehension construct has been broadened to incorporate fears individuals have about communicating in a variety of contexts. Very few researchers have studied what causes people to have dispositional stage fright. What is known is that among the contributors are: (1) inexperience in speaking in public, and (2) a history of aversive experiences when making presentations. There is also evidence that suggests some genetic predispositions for dispositional stage fright.
Physiologically, stage fright is often marked by sweaty palms, a nervous stomach, shaking hands, and a racing heart. Behaviorally, people with stage fright tend to pause more, stutter more often, and use more adaptors (nervous movements) when speaking in public. Cognitively, people with stage fright often have difficulty focusing on their presentations. They are less interested in knowing about upcoming presentations, and what they are interested in does not match what experts in public speaking think should be their primary concerns (e.g., they want information about how they will be evaluated and have a number of other self-related concerns). People with high levels of stage fright are less interested in environmental characteristics associated with a future presentation (e.g., nature of the audience, setting). Highly anxious people also select topics with which they have less familiarity (Daly et al. 1989). They tend to be much more self-focused when speaking than people without anxiety. It is not surprising that they give less effective speeches than people with less dispositional stage fright. Part of the reason their speeches may be less effective is that when preparing presentations they focus on things that are irrelevant to good presentations (Daly et al. 1995).
Interestingly, observers’ ratings of speakers’ anxiety and speakers’ self-reports of their anxiety are, at best, only modestly correlated. Audiences do not see speakers as having as much anxiety as speakers report experiencing (Behnke et al. 1987). In fact, when speakers become aware of how inaccurate their judgments are, the quality of their performances improves (Savitsky & Gilovich 2003).
Public speaking anxiety is inversely related to emotional stability, extraversion, intellect, affect intensity, and self-esteem. Anxious people see audiences as less agreeable and fear negative opinions more.
Treatment of Dispositional Stage Fright
Popular literature often recommends that nervous speakers simply face their fear – the notion is that if they get up and give some speeches, they will slowly overcome their anxiety. This works for people who have a limited degree of stage fright. But for those with extreme stage fright, this approach can backfire. If people are really scared of speaking in public, they probably will not expose themselves to many opportunities to give speeches. So when they do make a presentation, they are less likely to do well. That poor performance, in turn, confirms that they should be extraordinarily nervous about making presentations.
Most research suggests that skills training alone is not sufficient for reducing stage fright (Duff et al. 2007). But when skills training is done in conjunction with some of the treatments discussed below, there are significant reductions in individuals’ level of stage fright (Allen et al. 1989). Importantly, skills training must follow, not precede, other therapies (described below) (Hopf & Ayres 1992). Some recent research has challenged the notion that therapies are any better than public speaking training in reducing dispositional stage fright.
There are two major therapeutic approaches to alleviating dispositional stage fright. The first is systematic desensitization, which seeks to link relaxation rather than nervousness to communicating. In the therapy, people suffering from stage fright sit in a slightly dark room, listen to peaceful background music, and practice deep muscle relaxation. When they are relaxed, the therapist gently presents a hierarchy of scenarios that might create nervousness (e.g., an initial prompt might be talking to their friend about the weather; a much later prompt would be giving a speech in front of their friends and family). The moment a scenario raises even a little anxiety, people are instructed to signal the therapist. The therapist tells them to again start relaxing and after they are relaxed, the process starts again. Over time, people begin to tie public speaking to thoughts of relaxation rather than nervousness. Critical to this method are making sure that people understand that relaxation is something they have control over, and belief that the treatment is a credible one.
A second technique is cognitive restructuring. This technique assumes that people suffering from dispositional stage fright have unrealistic or irrational beliefs about presentations, which create stage fright (e.g., “I know people will laugh at me,” “I know I will say something stupid”). The therapy gets people to change those beliefs to more positive ones. This is done, in part, by challenging the reality of the irrational beliefs (e.g., “How do you know people will laugh at you?” “Have people laughed at you when you spoke in the past?” “What’s the worst thing that would happen if people did laugh at you?”) and having people, instead, generate more positive beliefs (“Most people have some nervousness. It’s normal and really reflects excitement!”).
A closely related approach is Motley’s communication oriented motivation (COM) approach (Motley & Molloy 1994), which suggests that people experiencing stage fright are too focused on performing and that they should be more focused on communicating with audiences. In this treatment, people’s negative or dysfunctional beliefs about speaking are challenged (e.g., that speaking is a novel activity different from conversing, that it must be more formal, that audiences carefully scrutinize speakers) by ones that highlight the communicative value of speaking (e.g., speaking is an important way to accomplish your goals; speaking is not really that different from having conversations).
There are, of course, many other potential treatments including medical ones (e.g., the use of beta-blockers), visualization, meditation, and biofeedback.
Situational Stage Fright
Everyone, even very experienced communicators, experiences some degree of stage fright when giving speeches. Indeed, there are positive consequences to having some degree of arousal when making speeches. The causes of situational stage fright are numerous and include (1) inadequate preparation, (2) heightened sense of conspicuousness, amplified by (3) a sense of being evaluated, especially in high-stakes environments, (4) audience size, (5) audience status, (6) the novelty of the setting, (7) rigid rules about presentations, (8) perceived audience disinterest in the topic, and (9) nonresponsiveness on the part of audience members (Daly & Buss 1984; MacIntyre et al. 1997; Witt & Behnke 2006). Dispositional stage fright interacts with various situational variables to affect performance such that for people high in dispositional stage fright these situational characteristics amplify situational anxiety and its consequences on performance.
In coaching people to overcome situational stage fright, popular techniques include familiarizing speakers with the setting and audience to reduce novelty; aiding people in choosing topics that are familiar to them; teaching presenters ways to better prepare presentations; encouraging speakers to relabel their arousal from fear to excitement; coaching presenters to focus more on audience members, shifting attention away from themselves to others; helping presenters develop relaxation skills (e.g., deep breathing) prior to presentations; guiding speakers to ignore or reject unrealistic or rigid beliefs about “rules” of speaking (e.g., you do not need to tell a joke at the start of presentations); and making presenters aware of the fact that audiences are not as negative as they might think they are. Speakers overestimate how critical audiences are.
- Allen, M., Hunter, J. E., & Donohue, W. A. (1989). Meta-analysis of self-report data on the effectiveness of public speaking treatment techniques. Communication Education, 38, 54–76.
- Behnke, R. R., Sawyer, C. R., & King, P. E. (1987). The communication of public speaking anxiety. Communication Education, 36, 138–141.
- Clevenger, T. (1959). A synthesis of experimental research in stage fright. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 45, 134–145.
- Daly, J. A., & Buss, A. H. (1984). The transitory causes of audience anxiety. In J. A. Daly & J. C. McCroskey (eds.), Avoiding communication. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, pp. 67–78.
- Daly, J. A., Vangelisti, A. L., Neel, H. L., & Cavanaugh, P. D. (1989). Pre-performance concerns associated with public speaking anxiety. Communication Quarterly, 37, 39–53.
- Daly, J. A., Vangelisti, A. L., & Weber, D. J. (1995). Speech anxiety affects how people prepare speeches: A protocol analysis of the preparation processes of speakers. Communication Monographs, 62, 383–397.
- Duff, D. C., Levine, T. R., Beatty, M. J., Woolbright, J., & Sun Park, H. (2007). Testing public speaking anxiety techniques against a credible placebo control. Communication Education, 56, 72–88.
- Hopf, T., & Ayres, J. (1992). Coping with public speaking anxiety: An examination of various combinations of systematic desensitization, skills training, and visualization. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 20, 183–198.
- MacIntyre, P. D., Thivierge, K. A., & McDonald, J. R. (1997). The effects of audience interest, responsiveness, and evaluation on public speaking anxiety and related variables. Communication Research Reports, 14, 157–168.
- Motley, M. T., & Molloy, J. L. (1994). An efficacy test of a new therapy (“communicationorientation motivation”) for public speaking anxiety. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 22, 48–58.
- Savitsky, K., & Gilovich, T. (2003). The illusion of transparency and the alleviation of speech anxiety. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39, 618– 625.
- Witt, P. L., & Behnke, R. R. (2006). Anticipatory speech anxiety as a function of public speaking assignment type. Communication Education, 55, 167–177.
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