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Joshua Gunn is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Affiliate Faculty in Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of the forthcoming public speaking text, Speech Craft.
Photo courtesy of Joshua Gunn
Q: What advice do you give your students who have public speaking anxiety or general communication apprehension?
JG: In popular culture, we tend to think about public speaking – and communication in general – as a kind of performance that one does well or poorly. I think this image of communication is really intimidating and puts too much pressure on folks. If we think about communicating with others as an attempt to build relationships – an attempt to celebrate the community – speaking can feel much less daunting. Practice, of course, helps a ton too. So my advice is to re-imagine what speaking to others is really about and then to practice it.
Q: How do you prepare for a speech?
JG: The very first things I need to know when preparing for a speech are (1) where I’m speaking; and (2) who will be in the audience. I ask questions of the person who asked me to speak to get a better sense of the room, the technology that I can use, and the size and demographics of the audience. When I can imagine the audience in my head, I have a much easier time going through a speech and thinking about what examples might be appealing or off-putting, what outfit to wear, what technology I can use, and so on. Now, it’s often the case that I’m asked to speak when the host has no idea what the room I’m speaking in will look like. When that happens, I try to sneak a peek of the room on a day before the speech or a few hours before my speaking engagement.
Having a mental image of the speaking space and possible audience helps me visualize success and adapt to my audience. I often make a mini-movie in my head of my future speaking engagement and the audience I’m speaking to. This movie always goes well. I envision succeeding. That really does help me when I actually speak.
Q: Have you ever experienced a bout of severe speech anxiety? If so, how did you deal with it?
JG: I almost always have speech anxiety when I speak. I’m least anxious speaking mid-semester during teaching because (a) I do it every day; and (b) I know my students by then. But when I teach the first week of class, I get nervous. I think speech anxiety is actually a good thing because it makes you more attentive and sensitive to the speaking situation, your audience’s needs, and so on.
I recently had severe anxiety when I was guest speaking at a university. I was really nervous because two good friends, two very respected faculty members, came to the speech. I got so nervous because I wanted to impress them. I remember that I got short of breath.
I knew at the moment that it was speech anxiety, and as I talked, my breathing became more labored. I remember I stopped in the middle of my speech, smiled, and said to the audience, “I’m sorry, I believe I’m coming down with something. If you’ll pardon me just a moment.” I took a drink of water and then calmly began my speech again. I finished the speech fine, and as it turned out, I did come down with a cold the next day. But to be honest, I just needed to pause and gather my wits as the wave of anxiety came over me. Just pardoning myself, taking a moment, and getting some water made a big difference. Today I suspect that no one remembers my little “break” during that speech.
Q: Have you ever spoken to an audience that was not receptive? How did you handle the situation?
JG: Yes, and more often than you might think. I speak a lot as a part of my job, and most audiences are very receptive. The toughest audiences are usually comprised of faculty from academic departments who have assembled to watch me deliver an “academic job talk,” which is a speech professors give to other professors about their research, as part of a job interview. Because audiences at this kind of speech are responsible for hiring what may be a life-long colleague, the stakes are much higher than a regular academic speech.
During a recent “job talk” at a big public university, my audience was not receptive – and worse, there wasn’t much I could do. I could tell during my speech that many of the audience members weren’t enjoying it. I tried to compensate by smiling more, telling a couple more jokes than I had planned, and acting goofier (“hamming it up”) when telling the jokes. After the speech was over, I could tell it hadn’t been received well based on the feeling in the room and the faces of the audience.
It was during the Q&A for this failed speech that I was able to recover. I was asked a series of hard questions about my speech. I listened actively to the questions and then paraphrased them back to each questioner to make sure I understood each question; then I answered the questions as thoughtfully and with as much good cheer as I could muster. A friend in the audience told me later that the Q&A went very well and that my answers to their questions were better than my speech!
I think the moral of my story here is this: The reception of a speech is not limited to the speech itself. A speaker can influence how a speech is perceived, understood, and remembered before and after a speech. Speakers should remember that the speech itself may be the “main course,” but often the side dishes and desserts are what win over hearts and minds. Sometimes you can even give a “bad” speech and still get your message across to an audience effectively, as I did.
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge students face now when they enter college?
JG: Students have trouble thinking critically and writing well, but that’s not because they don’t want to do those things. Today, secondary education is geared toward taking exams. Although higher education has its fair share of exams, upper-division courses challenge students to think for themselves and “outside the box.” I find that my students are often surprised when I tell them they can write about anything they want to in some assignments.
Q: What motivates you to continue teaching?
JG: I’m always motivated when students are learning and engaged, and especially when they seem visibly excited about course material. An earnest note from a student about the value of a lesson or course really goes a long way with me. I’m also encouraged when students laugh at my terrible jokes. If they’re laughing at my terrible jokes, it usually means they’re finding the material that is not “a joke” worthy of their attention.
On a personal note...
Q: How do you spend your time when you're not teaching?
JG: I really enjoy cooking and gardening. I also love to see live music when I can.
Q: If you hadn't pursued a career in higher education, what career path do you think you would have chosen?
JG: I was headed to law school to be a civil rights attorney and advocate before I discovered the academy, so I imagine I would have pursed that. If I decide to embark on a new career path, I’d be interested in training to be a psychotherapist or counselor of some kind.
Q: What was the last book you read?
JG: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I’m currently reading His Master’s Voice by Stanisław Lem.
Q: What book has influenced you most?
JG: The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater.
Q: Where is one place you want to travel to, but have never been?
JG: Too many! Scotland is on the top of my list, though.
Q: What is something you want to learn in the next year (Communication-related or otherwise)?
JG: How to achieve this mysterious thing called “work-life balance.”
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?
JG: I’m obsessed with sloths.
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