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Guiding Anxious Students to Public Speaking Success

Blue microphoneIn order to help students with high speech anxiety cope with this issue, Communication Studies Senior Lecturer Suzy Prentiss teaches two special sections of CMST 240 Business and Professional Communication every semester.  She also designed, with help from OIT, an open access website and assessment tool (SAAT) that offers insight and tips for managing speech anxiety, http://myfops.cci.utk.edu.
Interest in the class cuts across all majors, with students from freshman to seniors and even graduate students expressing interest. From the outside, Prentiss’ students resemble those enrolled in any traditional public speaking class with similar gifts and talents.  They recognize that speech anxiety is a challenge they want to overcome, not only to meet the class requirement but, more importantly, to develop this life skill.
“It is a great joy is to see students develop their confidence and share their story,” said Prentiss, who also conducts research in this area. “The progress made from the first day to the last is extraordinary and a testament to their ability and effort.  I am always so proud of them and I think they are also proud of themselves.”
The special sections cover the same material as a traditional classroom and require presentations as well as other assignments. The difference is the special sections are capped at 15 students, rather than the traditional 25 student class, and all members of the class share the same struggle with speech anxiety.  Rather than spending a day discussing speech anxiety, the curriculum is infused with ways to address, manage and harness that energy knowing it is present throughout the term.
Students report great progress during and after the class.  In addition to a general reduction in overall speech anxiety, most students experience an increased confidence, willingness to participate, and less negative feelings about the prospect of delivering a presentation.  Many students have reported speaking up more in their other classes, and some have even become more involved in campus organizations.  A few have reported being able to take advantage of study abroad and internship opportunities due to their positive experience in the class.
“Taking the speech anxious class has opened so many doors for me personally and professionally,” said one former student. “I would not be where I am today without it. I will never completely overcome my anxiety, but, because of this class, I know I can manage it and deliver speeches successfully time and time again.”