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 It’s important to realize that these messages are no longer applicable to our current lives as students and lawyers.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!).

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