August 14, 2012
Overcoming a fear of public speaking
I have spent the past three weeks teaching gifted 10, 11, and 12 year olds in Palo Alto, CA. I do this every summer, and I learn a lot from the kids. I teach college-level Model United Nations and Advanced Geography, and all the students are required to formally address the class about their nation's position on the issue involved in the simulation. This year, the class had a student who was terrified of public speaking. Her terror mirrored what I see in 1L's approaching moot court. I learned a great deal from this student as she overcame her fear and went on to be on the the class's strongest advocates.
1) Trust rules of procedure.
The student, who I will call A, learned that rules of parliamentary procedure were her friend. All students needed to follow the rules, so she knew what to expect when she was asked to speak. No one could yell out or distract her, or they would be violating the rules. While moot court doesn't use rules of parliamentary procedure, there are rules that protect the speaker. Many students with a fear of public speaking are afraid of public ridicule, and the rules associated with moot court prevent the heckling they fear.
2) Preparation will make you feel better.
A knew her position on the issues. She could answer any question. She knew she had done the research. Her paper was approved by two different teachers. These steps helped allay some of her fears that she would be asked a question that she could not answer. Some of her fear of public speaking was a fear of being caught off-guard. Preparation, and guidance, make a huge difference when a student fears public speaking.
3) Everyone makes mistakes.
A was not the first speaker, which allowed her to listen to her classmates before she had to speak. We asked her to listen for mistakes, because even the best, most fluid speakers make mistakes. When she saw that the mistakes did not mar the substance of most speeches, she was able to relax.
4) If you feel the ideas flying out of your head, stop talking. Take a deep breath. Start again.
When A realized that no one would heckle her if she forgot part of her speech, it calmed her nerves. But we still needed to reassure her that she could forget her speech, and she could take a second to regain her composure and resume speaking. She had a 60-second time limit on her speech (far less than most appellate arguments in moot court) but she still had enough time to take a deep breath and start again if she felt like she was losing control. Just the knowledge that she could take a second helped keep her calm during her first few speeches to the class.
For those of you who are thinking "but the stakes are SO much higher in law school," take a minute to recall being in middle school. This class was filled with super-competitive, ambitious, and gifted middle school students who have never failed at anything in their short lives. These students choose to take a college-level class during their summer vacation. The thought of making a mistake feels life-altering to them. Because they live in dorms while they take the class, they cannot escape from their peers. The fear that A felt is not much different from the fear felt by 1L's. (RCF)