People feel insecure when they have to present themselves or their talent in front of others. They fear that they will be ridiculed or thought of as someone of less importance and/or lower intelligence. Public speaking, i.e., in front of a bigger audience or crowd, is a well-known fear creator or even phobia to plenty of people. According to the Washington Post, Public Speaking is the biggest fear of Americans, with 25,3% answering that they fear speaking in front of a crowd. Hence, if you fear public speaking, you can rest assured that you are not alone in this. This can be extra difficult for leaders, especially visionary, servant, charismatic, or transformational leaders where communication is absolutely crucial.
Most people do suffer from some level of anxiety when speaking in front of a group. Many of us experience low or moderate levels of anxiety such as being nervous, shaking etc. after all. Deep in our brains, being in focus and being evaluated can simply trigger our fight or flight behavior, even though the threat is not physical. This will article will help you understand communication apprehension and how you can win over it.
James McCroskey defined communication apprehension as “an individual´s level of fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with another person or persons”. This fear comes from the expected or perceived judgment from the audience as well as by the communicator his or herself. This does not have to be while on stage in front of a large amount of people, it can be communication also in smaller groups or between individuals.
What are the physical symptoms of Communication Apprehension?
When you are experiencing communication apprehension, you can feel some very real and physical symptoms. These possible symptoms include nausea, dizziness, dryness in the mouth, clammy hands, sweating, faster heartbeats, quivering voices, a sensation of butterflies in your stomach, panic, etc.
What are the different types of Communication Apprehension?
There are several different versions or types of communication apprehension. I believe that understanding these and knowing yourself better, will increase your level of preparedness and possibility to contain the symptoms to a certain extent. (It is also beneficial to learn more about communication in general, refer to our article 17 tips on improved communication.)
Communication Apprehension as a Trait
This type makes some people more predisposed than others to feel anxiety. The trait theory states that some people are simply more likely than others to experience anxiety – it is essentially a personality trait or type. People suffering from this type of communication apprehension are definitely less likely to hold public speeches and meetings, regardless of the audience and the situation. With this type of communication apprehension, you would likely want to completely avoid situations where you need to address a huge amount of people. There are several schools of thought on whether this is due to genetics or whether the trait has been acquired during life. The latter would mean it can be altered with the right actions. With practice and an improved confidence, the problems could be reduced but are unlikely to completely go away.
Communication Apprehension through Context
The context anxiety depends on a specific form of communication, situation or context essentially. A typical context where communication apprehension sets in would be the aforementioned public speaking situation.
There are three subdivisions within contextual communication apprehension:
Some people are more nervous in formal situations of speaking such as public speeches. This is the formality context of communication apprehension. This would include speeches, press conferences, presentations, public speaking and similar things.
Some people get nervous and anxious when they do not know what to expect. This is the uncertainty communication apprehension. The person only gets anxious when faced with an uncertain situation wherein he or she does not know for sure what is going to happen next. Uncertainty could entail some new members in the normal group with their potential reactions or judgment being unknown for instance. Question sessions and other situations when unknown or new circumstances arise could also create uncertainty enough for communication apprehension to set in.
If you are in a new situation, i.e. speaking in a new setting, on a new topic, at a new workplace etc. you can experience communication apprehension connected to novelty. The first time you have a big presentation will make you more nervous than the hundredth time you do it.
It is easier to handle the context version of communication apprehension than the trait version since all parts of the context version can be controlled by ample practice. When a person is more used to giving public speeches, he or she is more likely to get considerably less anxious through experience.
Being on an actual stage can set off communication apprehension from formality perspective since it is an elevated way of having a public speech or perhaps even a performance. If it is your first time on a stage, it might be anxious from a novelty perspective as well.
Communication Apprehension from Audience Anxiety
Audience anxiety is the type of communication apprehension where you are more anxious about a specific audience than the situation, object or topic. Essentially, if you speak comfortably in front of a certain type of audience, but not another, you could be experiencing communication apprehension. Perhaps you are ok with speaking in front of fellow students, but delivering the same presentation in front of an audience of teachers and professors might be a very different thing. Typical audience characteristics involved is your similarity with the audience, any subordinate status, the size of the audience and finally your familiarity with the audience. Essentially, the perceived threat level and potential consequence of failing would be different in when in front of different audiences.
People are usually more comfortable talking in front of those whom they think they are similar to. People they find relatable and have the most common views with, or if they are in the majority in any given audience – this reduces the risk of saying “the wrong thing” or getting an unexpected reaction from the crowd.
Situation Anxiety as the cause of communication apprehension
The audience, the pace, the aesthetic, and even the mood of the speaker defines a certain situation. When some factors go against the speaker in a situation, they are more likely to be nervous than they originally would in a similar situation. Especially if the circumstances are less comfortable to the speaker. This can be difficult to understand and see happening of course. Sometimes several factors combined simply create a situation that is more difficult to handle than normally. Delays, topics going wrong, having to rush through a presentation or simply being tired or something else could create additional anxiety from the situation that has arisen. In these days of remote communication, concerns about failing equipment and connectivity can be additional worries for some of us.
I have been in situations where a major presentation is also the first time for a personal introduction to a new company with a sizeable audience watching. Everything had to be great at that time and I felt that the future years depended on my performance as well as on the content of my presentation that day.
How to reduce your communication apprehension?
Bear in mind that the heightened senses and performance you can get from being a bit nervous can also be good and useful. To stop being nervous at all is not necessarily a goal. The below hints on reducing communication apprehension can be used if the problems are bad enough to restrict you from doing things you want or need to do. There are several methods of handling your communication apprehension luckily. Depending on your level of anxiety, you might need to deploy several of them in order to contain the communication apprehension.
Reduce communication apprehension through systematic desensitization
This method involves a range of different activities and tools, which are then repeated several times. In short: expose yourself to the situation causing anxiety in a controlled way and the anxiety will gradually reduce. This will naturally reduce both the novelty and uncertainty types of communication apprehension described above.
Relaxation techniques can make you less tense before performing and going through the different parts of the event beforehand and understanding which areas are more difficult for you will help you to address them. Start with smaller crowds, get used to the topics and settings, and gradually make it more difficult for yourself. It will grow your confidence and knowledge within public speaking through experience essentially.
I can personally testify that this works. I am much more relaxed, confident, and at ease when giving speeches to larger audiences today than I was when I started my leadership career. Over time, I have accumulated experience and improved my confidence, which helps when communicating. Again, our article with 17 communication tips can help you improve.
Illustration purposes only. Systematic Desensitization could be presenting to an audience over and over again and improve on your skills and reducing any anxiety along the way.
Cognitive modification to control communication apprehension
With this approach, you need to readdress the way you think of communication. Go through the fears, what causes them, and why they surface in a methodical way. You can do some of this on your own, with a good feedback partner, or even by therapy. Realizing the fact that you cannot sustain bodily harm and considering the consequences if you make a fool out of yourself would be important steps on the way. What are really the consequences if a presentation goes wrong? In most cases, the consequences are far from as bad as you might imagine them in your head. Furthermore, many “mistakes” are only noticed by the speaker him or herself and are not even considered by the audience at all and perhaps not even seen as mistakes.
Consider what you do well and whether others could do this as well as you do. Put things into perspective and you might actually find out that you are much better at public speaking than most others are for instance. Understanding, accepting, and embracing your strengths can surely help in reducing your anxiety. (Check out our article on intrapersonal communication and my book at Amazon: Intrapersonal Communication to learn more about self-coaching and your internal dialogue.)
Over time, I have realized what posture or activity makes me uncomfortable and stopped doing those specific things so I do not have to worry about them. If I am worried that my hands will shake a bit, then I definitely do not base my presentation on holding a piece of paper or on using a laser pointer since this will make me very worried about whether any shake will show or not. Do you feel your handwriting is horrible and it makes you nervous to write in front of people? Well, then don´t make writing on a whiteboard a big part of your presentation. Again, even if others do not notice this as a problem, you will be concerned about it and potentially get more nervous because of it.
Skills training to reduce communication apprehension
This one is simple and straightforward but can still be difficult to master. Get better at speaking basically! Consider how you prepare your presentation, what topic you speak on, speech delivery, self-confidence, etc. Getting better at all the aspects of speaking such as voice, rhythm, body language as well as creating a good presentation with the right content, right volume of text, images, etc. will help you to perform better.
Summary on Communication Apprehension
Communication Apprehension is the level of fear or anxiety an individual experiences or associates with communicating in different settings. In most cases, this is in front of larger groups, i.e. public speaking, which is a very common fear or even phobia.
You can have many different symptoms from communication apprehension, such as dizziness, clammy hands, dry mouth, sweating, voice problems, etc.
Communication Apprehension comes in four major forms and you can reduce your communication apprehension through systematic desensitization, cognitive modification, or training and improving your skill levels.
Have you experienced communication apprehension? Have you perhaps managed to reduce or get control over your communication apprehension? Please comment below in that case – we are eager to hear your story.
McCroskey, James “Oral Communication Apprehension: A summary of recent theory and research”, Human Communication Research 4.