Online courses and meetings: how to overcome your fear of speaking


With the confinement and restrictions linked to the Covid-19 crisis, many students and parents have become accustomed to interacting by interposed camera, with a computer, tablet or smartphone. The challenge is usually finding a good place to settle down so that you can calmly ask questions, provide answers and share opinions with an online audience.

Initially, concerns mostly focused on issues of privacy and equality .

Then, very quickly, other problems appeared, such as the specific fatigue generated by the Zoom conferences. But there is another topic that has been less discussed, and that is the stress of these online sessions.

One in five people are affected

People have questioned the ability to speak in public for centuries. It is even said that the great Roman orator Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC) turned pale and began to tremble before each of his speeches.

But this is the twentieth th  century that this anxiety in communication situation has been studied in depth. It has been described under different terms such as stage fright , reluctance or apprehension to communicate.

Research estimates that about one in five speakers experience this kind of difficulty, which can hamper every opportunity to speak. This could be talking to your boss or teacher, participating in a focus group, or giving a presentation. The fear of speaking in public is one of the facets of the apprehension to communicate in general.

Anxiety when speaking is well documented. It is complex (with varying causes, symptoms and solutions), manifests itself differently in different people, and can fluctuate a lot between presentations or within the same presentation.

By focusing on individual differences, it is recognized that thoughts and feelings may be out of step with apparent behavior. So a speaker who seems disengaged may actually feel a lack of control.

This is a delicate question. Some people may feel nervous as soon as they are told about a procedure and others will feel more nervous on D-Day than their hearing perceives.

From screen to mirror

It is the presence of an audience and the potential for negative feedback from that audience that can make us anxious, whether listeners are physically or virtually present.

This brings us to the rather embarrassing situation where we find ourselves talking to a row of little squares lined up on a screen, through a video connection. Not only does this framework limit the non-verbal cues on which we generally rely, but it also restricts the possibility of joking among participants.

On the one hand, it can help to be more efficient in time management, but, on the other hand, it makes conversations more stilted.

The need to be visible is discussed a lot in online service delivery. In educational institutions, those who support the principle of “cameras on for all participants” say that it helps to reproduce the usual conditions of a classroom, to encourage discussion and to ensure that students are well. active (and not just connected).

But we must stop on what justifies such an obligation. Attending a meeting through a video app is not the same as attending a live performance.

For starters, speakers rarely see each other when they are speaking. As a speaker, I find it entertaining to see myself directly on screen when talking to my students, especially when trying to look directly at the camera lens to maximize eye contact.

Tailor-made programs

Whether you’re leading a business meeting or teaching a class, here are some tips that can help you feel more comfortable with your virtual audience:

  • send participants an agenda that can incorporate a number of questions sent in advance to prepare for discussion;
  • reduce uncertainty by letting participants know from the start whether or not they are expected to speak during the session;
  • verbally, or visually with signage, underline the course steps and transitions, to compensate for the lack of usual benchmarks (for example, “I will check the discussion box once this point is completed, so please not to add questions as you go ”);
  • use spoken language with simple structures;
  • reassess the value of calling out to someone at random or during a discussion because if participants fear being asked without warning them, they may be less inclined to engage globally;
  • depending on the number of participants and the type of session, think upstream about the need for interactions: unnecessary interaction is sometimes not preferable to a lack of interaction;
  • Think concretely about every online event, without sticking to general rules. As many teachers will tell you, just because a student is physically present does not mean that he is actively engaged …

Tutorials, workshops and online meetings are going to be around for quite a while. To create safe, supportive and productive sessions, we need to put in place relevant and reassuring oral expression practices.

It is already a good point to recognize that the fear of speaking is a common phenomenon, and which can manifest itself in a classroom as in a virtual setting.

Author Bio: Lesley Irvine is a Lecturer in Strategic Speech Communication at Queensland University of Technology