Vincent Ferraro and Kathryn C. Palmer
Mount Holyoke College
South Hadley, MA 01075
Speaking and Arguing: The Rhetoric of Peace and War


It is admittedly difficult to stand in front of an audience, and even the most accomplished speakers will admit to nervousness before a speech. In study after study, researchers have found that the fear of public speaking outranks the fear of dying for most. There is no effective way to erase completely this anxiety, but mild anxiety is probably indispensable to a good speech.  Anxiety will stimulate adequate preparation and provide the surge of energy necessary for a powerful delivery. 

What every speaker needs to avoid is a level of anxiety that leads to behavior that diverts the audience's attention.  Audiences will rarely find a quavering voice persuasive.  Nor do they find hand-wringing or fidgeting to be signs of a commited speaker.  A speaker should remember that the audience has access only to these outward signs of anxiety.  Even a highly anxious speaker can be quite effective as long as he or she suppresses these external manifestations of nervousness.

There are three common ways to diminish the negative effects of anxiety: Depersonalization, Behavior Modification, and Practice.

Depersonalization.  This technique requires a speaker to define speech-making in very narrow and deliberative terms.  Typically, some degree of anxiety flows out of personal concerns: "Will the audience think that my argument is silly?"  "What if I offend somebody?"  "Do I look all right?"  These concerns are normal, but can be debilitating to a speaker because they revolve around the speaker as a person and not around the integrity of the argument.   Depersonalization is nothing more than a mental device in which the speaker defines himself or herself as nothing more than the deliverer of a message.  In effect, the speaker becomes the argument's instrument.

In many respects the strategy of depersonalization sounds like cosmic mumbo-jumbo, but it is an accurate way to think about what a speech actually is.  The audience is not present to see the speaker as a person; if they were, there would be many other ways to accomplish that purpose.  Of course, there will be some in the audience who are there for other reasons (to be seen by others, to see others, to justify a night out, etc.), but a speaker should ignore those motives since they are irrelevant. The audience is there because most people in the audience wish to hear a substantive argument.

Moreover, there are good reasons to think about the argument as something that exists independently of the speaker.  If one has prepared the argument well, the logic of the argument, not the personality of the speaker, determines what is said and when it is said.  The logic of the argument also determines what evidence should be cited.  The speaker has control over the manner in which an argument is articulated, but even in this arena, the speaker lacks total control.  The audience will have a strong influence on how it ought to be delivered: an effective speaker will pay attention to the audience's signals and modify the presentation to meet the audience's needs.  In reality, the speaker's only active role in a speech is to assure that the ideas connect with the audience. The speaker is literally nothing more than a conduit for the argument.

An effective speaker keeps the centrality of the argument in the forefront of his or her mind while delivering a speech, and does not allow a speech to become an opportunity for the audience to assess moral worth.  Perhaps the most effective speakers are ones who are so committed to an idea that their own selves become submerged in the argument.   We rarely find ourselves in similar situations, but the logic is analogous: suppress your ego while giving a speech.

One of the oldest pieces of advice given to speakers is to imagine that everyone in the audience is naked.  The suggestion presumably reduces the feeling of vulnerability of the speaker, and, as such, is consistent with the advice of depersonalizing the speech.   The advice, however, is flawed.  One needs to respect the audience totally and imagining people naked is hardly an attitude of respect.  A better way to reduce one's own feeling of vulnerability is to imagine the argument taking control of your mind and body for the short period of time you will be speaking.

This recommendation does not suggest that the speaker become an automaton.   Indeed, the speaker should let his or her enthusiasm and commitment to the argument, not to personal concerns, be as obvious as possible--the audience will be looking for these oral and visual cues of sincerity.  But, again, the focus is on the argument, not on making an impression on the audience.  A speaker who suggests that the argument should be believed because he or she is a nice person is wasting everyone's time.

In practical terms, one should always spend a few seconds at the podium before one begins to allow a transformation to occur.  The transformation is one from a normal human being with fears and insecurities to being a speaker, the vessel chosen for a particular situation to transmit a powerful and important idea.

Behavior Modification

Trying to be completely relaxed during a speech is both undesirable and impossible.   Audiences expect a speaker to be intense about the subject matter.  But intensity is not the same thing as anxiousness, and a speaker should focus all of his or her energies on suppressing manifestations of anxiety.   There is no cure for speech anxiety, but eliminating the symptoms of anxiety is clearly possible.

Some of the more common manifestations of anxiety are trembling, fidgeting, a weak or quivering voice, and  losing one's concentration, all of which are correctable.   These symptoms are usually most acute at the beginning of a speech and generally dissipate as the speaker moves into the heart of the argument.  Indeed, by the end of most speeches, there are usually no signs of anxiety for even the most nervous speakers.

Thus, an anxious speaker should assure that the beginning of the speech is the most personally comfortable part of the speech.  The first priority is to breathe properly.  Nervousness will cause one to take shallow, quick breaths that often translate into a reedy, panicked voice.  Before one steps up to the podium, one should consciously take long, deep breaths.  Not only will such breathing patterns contribute to a stronger voice, they will also relax.

Second, the opening of the speech should be completely familiar to the speaker.  A speaker should know exactly what the first two sentences of the speech will be, perhaps even commiting them to memory.  Often speakers will open with a story or a joke;   the purpose of this strategy is to divest the speaker of needing to think about what he or she is going to say.  Even thanking the audience for coming is a good way of making sure that the speech begins easily.

Third, a speaker should take an inventory of nervous behavior during practice sessions.  Unfortunately, most nervous behavior is not self-obvious.  Watching a video-tape of oneself or having others critique one's delivery are good ways of identifying nervous traits. Common behavior patterns include:

Fidgeting with an object.  Never bring a pen or papers with a paper clip to the podium; inevitably these items will end up in one's hands and become a center of the audience's attention.  A speaker should avoid touching his or her hair, or playing with coins in a pocket, buttons, or pins.  Never scratch any part of your body.  Never put your hands behind your back.  Never sway back and forth.   Never dance at the podium.

Trembling.  Trembling hands are a common symptom of nervousness.   The best place for one's hands is at one's side, but grasping the podium lightly is a good cure for trembling.  A speaker should not hold note cards or papers if trembling is a problem: the trembling will be made more obvious by larger objects in the hand.  Gestures are also an effective way to minimize the obviousness of trembling, but gestures should be used sparingly.

Quivering Voice.  A strong voice is necessary to convey commitment and sincerity, and anxiety weakens a voice to a great extent. There are ways to address this issue, but one must be careful not to create other problems with some of these solutions. Speaking more loudly and deeply is a good technique to soften out a quivering voice as long as the following caveats are observed.  A speaker should not speak too loudly, or the ability to vary volume will be lost.  A speaker's voice should be as natural as possible and artificially deepening one's voice too much can make one sound silly.

Forgetting What One Wants to Say.  This symptom of nervousness can be horrific, but only if one allows it to disrupt the flow of the speech.  Some speakers try to overcome this problem by writing out their speech.  This tactic is flawed; losing one's place in the speech can be just as disruptive as forgetting the next point, and losing eye contact is a heavy price to pay for security.  A better strategy is to rely upon notes which can be quickly scanned in order to refresh one's memory.  Taking a sip of water while scanning is a good way to avoid looking embarrassed or flustered. Openly admitting that one has lost his or her train of thought can release some tension and elicit support from the audience, but this tactic can only be used once during a speech.

Practice.  The only really effective way to minimize obvious anxiety is to be comfortable with the act of speaking.  One can attain this level of comfort only by practicing.  Speakers should take every opporunity to speak aloud and use each experience to learn more about one's effective speech patterns.