Fear of Public Speaking

When I first started law school, I had one thing on my mind: getting called on in class. Like many students, the fear of public speaking was a constant battle. Despite preparing for class the night before and the morning of, the second I walked into the classroom, my brain shut off. My anxiety about “looking stupid” or “giving a wrong answer” was getting in the way of my learning experience. I know there are many students like me that are fighting this battle too, but can you do to get better and calm that anxiety?

An article called “Are you a lawyer with public speaking anxiety? You are not alone” was published on the ABA Journal website, which I found to be personally helpful. The author, Heidi Brown, talks about being a litigator for 20 years and being absolutely terrified of public speaking. What I loved about this article was the advice she gave:

  1. “Ditch the Clichés”

She starts off by advising individuals to feel comfortable in rejecting those messages that say “just get over it” or “simply overprepare, overprepare, and fake it”. This advice may work for some, but it certainly doesn’t work for all, especially when if you’re like me, you’re sending yourself all kinds of negative messages such as “they’ll think you’re not smart” or “they’re going to judge you later.” “Instead, to amplify our advocacy voices, we must invest in both mental and physical reflection and then convert our enhanced self-knowledge into conscious action.”

The next step suggested is to identify potential original sources of those negative messages. Heidi points out that this isn’t a “blame game,” but rather a way to recognize the harmful messages that may have entered our brains long ago. It’s important to realize that these messages are no longer applicable to our current lives as students and lawyers.

Heidi encourages us to find other moments in our lives where we feel empowerment and use that to inspire us during those scary public speaking moments. Using these moments, we can turn that “they’ll think I’m stupid” into “they’ll see how prepared I am.”

  • “Getting Physical”

A huge part of public speaking is not only your mental state, but your body language. There’s a TED talk by Amy Cuddy (the video is actually directly on the article page) that I highly suggest you watch. A professor sent this out before we had our oral arguments last year and it really helped me when it was time to face one of my biggest fears of 1L.

Heidi reflects on how she would make herself feel smaller as if to hide her “weakness.” I, too, found that I tried protect myself in the same way to hide the embarrassing anxiety and overheating that took over my body when I had to speak in front of my class. Now, Heidi has a checklist she uses and ensures that she opens herself up as soon as she starts to feel that anxiety rushing in. Most importantly (I think), is she remembers to breathe! I’m definitely trying to utilize these tips and the ones from Amy Cuddy’s TED talk.

I would also just like to add that there’s a great non-profit organization called Toast Masters with clubs located all over the world. These are clubs that get together and help individuals work on public speaking and leadership skills. See the video on their website for an overview of exactly how this program works and how to get involved.

If you’re really struggling with speaking up, remember that there are a ton of resources available. The internet has a lot of tips, but don’t be afraid to seek counseling or speak to someone who has to do public speaking every day (like professors!).

4 Responses

  1. Quite a difference exists between responding to a professor’s cold call and delivering a presentation, each with its own anxieties. As to the latter, even after you have prepared your remarks, last-minute problems can arise that produce stress or impair your presentation. To help presenters avoid such problems, I have prepared this guide: https://info.cooley.edu/blog/tips-for-making-a-presentation

  2. One of the assessment-worthy activities I assign in my Domestic Violence Seminar course is a class presentation on the final paper. As part of the class, I provide links and information on oral communication and presentation tips. This blog post is going into that folder on my TWEN and CANVAS sites!

  3. This is some excellent advice! I am also a big fan of getting my students to read or watch Amy Cuddy – we even practice the superhero pose in class! Coming from an Anglo-Australian perspective, I have also found Iain Morley’s ‘The Devil’s Advocate’ to be really useful to support preparation. Even though it is directed to advocacy, the advice in it – how to exhibit confidence, keep in mind the objective – is equally applicable to presentations.

    I have also found that a big part of encouraging greater confidence in public speaking is to build a supportive and cooperative seminar environment. I also include an explicit discussion of expectations of one another, and on giving and receiving feedback. I have written about some techniques to do that here: https://the-mermaids-purse.blog/2019/02/15/5-steps-to-manage-expectations-in-your-law-school-classroom/

    • Thank you Andrew! So happy to hear some international voices chime in. I am going to check out The Devil’s Advocate as well as the Mermaids Purse – what intriguing names. And I totally agree that creating a good learning environment and articulating and I submit assessing classroom participation is key.

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