#LTHEChat 178 Overcoming students’ fear of public speaking with guest host Dr Rob Grieve @robgrieve17

A fear of public speaking is common in the general population with a high percentage of people anxious and fearful to stand up and speak in public. Oral presentations and public speaking are an important aspect of the student experience in UK higher education. Many modules use presentations as a form of assessment, without fully acknowledging the fear that many students have in public speaking. There is evidence that some students have a fear of public speaking, but this is limited and not fully acknowledged in relation to the student experience. A survey on the impact of social anxiety on student learning and well-being of students from two UK universities, found that students reported that public speaking/presentations were associated with frequent social anxiety (Russell and Topham, 2012). A study of undergraduate students in the US found that 64% reported a fear of public speaking (Ferreira Marinho et al, 2017).  

We recently conducted a qualitative survey of public speaking fears of students attending our Stand up and be Heard (SUBH) library workshops (Grieve, et al, 2019). One of the key themes was that public speaking had a negative effect on university experience and that students main fear was of being judged. The survey clearly identified the specific fears students have when public speaking and provides clear evidence of the negative effect on some students and their higher education experience. 

Apart from student fears, it was found that 89% of them would appreciate public-speaking training and support as an addition to their curriculum (Ferreria Marnho et al, 2017). Further research indicates that first-year students who completed pre- and post-public speaking exercises, identified greater feelings of satisfaction and less fear, indecision and confusion in relation to public speaking and public speaking assessment (Nash et al, 2016).

My approach to public speaking, used in my SUBH workshops and recently published book Stand Up and Be Heard (Grieve, 2020) has primarily focussed on being an authentic public speaker and moved away from the common approach that focusses on style and perfection. The authentic public speaker approach seemed to resonate with students and staff and was reinforced by my less than perfect but authentic facilitation of the workshops. https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/news-and-views/stand-up-and-be-heard

In becoming an authentic public speaker, we focus on the following components namely: 

  • Being present in the moment
  • Be yourself
  • Vulnerability
  • Let go of perfectionism

A key point is that becoming an authentic public speaker does not happen overnight, it takes time and practice to implement. What does change very quickly, as we have found with many students is the realisation that striving for perfection and style over substance increases the public speaking fear level.

The important take home message is that we as learning and teaching staff, need to recognise that public speaking and module assessed presentations can be a real challenge and impact negatively on some of our student’s university experience and mental health. In my experience and as identified by some of the evidence, we as universities need to support our students more comprehensively in public speaking, which is an integral component of the university student experience. 


Grieve, R., Woodley, J., Hunt, S., McKay, A. and Lloyd, J. (2019) Student fear of public speaking in higher education: A qualitative survey. In: Advance HE Surveys Conference, Bristol, UK, 8th  May 2019.

Grieve, R. (2020) Stand Up and Be Heard: Taking the Fear Out of Public Speaking at University (Student Success). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Ferreira Marinho AC, Mesquita de Medeiros A, Côrtes Gama AC, Caldas Teixeira L. (2017) Fear of Public Speaking: Perception of College Students and Correlates. Journal of Voice, 31 (1), 127.e7-127.e11.

Gregory Nash, Gail Crimmins & Florin Oprescu (2016) If first-year

students are afraid of public speaking assessments what can teachers do to alleviate

such anxiety?, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 41 (4), pp 586-600.

Russell, G, and Topham, P. (2012). The impact of social anxiety on student learning and well-being in higher education. Journal of Mental Health, 21 (4), pp 375-385.

Rob Grieve Biography 

Photograph of Rob Grieve

Dr Rob Grieve is a senior lecturer in Physiotherapy at the University of the West of England and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (HEA). As a person with a mild stammer, he has faced many issues in public speaking which has led to an increased awareness of student fears of public speaking and resulted in the facilitation of university wide student support workshops. The authenticity approach advocated in his public speaking workshops, is central to his learning and teaching practice. He has conducted research and regularly presented at national learning and teaching conferences on student fear of public speaking.

He recently published a book (SAGE Publishing), which had positive reviews from UK academics (see link)

Stand Up and Be Heard Taking the Fear Out of Public Speaking at University


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3 Responses to #LTHEChat 178 Overcoming students’ fear of public speaking with guest host Dr Rob Grieve @robgrieve17

  1. Paul Kassel says:

    There’s no doubt that fear of public performance can be crippling, and many of our students are ill-prepared to handle it. I use the word performance purposely for it encompasses the variety of performances they are asked to do–from interpersonal to persuasive speech. Public speaking seems to hark back to Demosthenes running up and down hills, mouth full of pebbles. But what we’re really talking about is performance–acts designed for perception–and the best and surest way to authentic performance is via basic acting training–DOING, not BEING.
    While I understand prescriptions like “be yourself” this really provides no guidance about just how to go about it. The same goes for “being in the moment” or vulnerability or authenticity. Most of us know these qualities when we see them, but standing on the outside directing students to be vulnerable or one’s self or in the moment can only be achieved by gaining trust over time, so a student feels more at ease and their natural presence emerges over the course of a term. But once out of the classroom, often out goes the lessons learned.
    In order to perform anything effectively, you have to know how to do it efficiently, with no more nor less than the energy required to accomplish the task. It requires clarity of the task at hand, specificity of the action required to accomplish the task, and mastery of the material (even if it is extemporaneous–or, more to my liking–improvised). This can all be found in a good, basic acting class.
    The problem, of course, is most people don’t know a good acting class when they see it, or worse, think that acting is a kind of pretend or lying (or as Plato would have it, hypocrisy). But like all art forms, acting/theater evolves from basic human behaviors that ANYONE can do. A second problem is that most teachers of acting focus on acting for the stage (or for the camera)–but that’s only one kind of performance that is served by a good acting class.
    When I was an asst. prof at Stony Brook University back in the early 2000s, I concocted a course called Performing and Performance that was designed specifically to deal with this issue of fear of public speaking. I applied what I had learned as an actor and teacher of acting to what I learned as a teacher of general education students (when not teaching theatre majors). Many acting teachers before and after have and are now doing the same. That is not to say this ought to be the exclusive domain of theatre professors–not at all! What I am saying is that this is an old conversation that has benefited from inter- and transdisciplinary thinking. I have worked with the wonderful Sarah Rose Cavanaugh, integrating her work on social-emotional learning with my work on acting. We’re aren’t the first, and many others are engaged in this conversation.


  2. michaelrhysjohnson says:

    These are great points and I point students to folk like Carolyn Goyder’s TED talk and such to raise the issue. There is always competition for things like this on the curriculum, and that’s not to mention the means/criteria for assessing academic presentations can steer people in the opposite direction to Being present in the moment, Being yourself, Vulnerability and ‘Let go of perfectionism’… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2MR5XbJtXU


  3. Pingback: #LTHEchat 2019-20 round up | #LTHEchat

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