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Speech anxiety, also known as ‘stage fright,’ refers to the feeling of anxiousness or fear associated with delivering a speech. The symptoms of speech anxiety involve physiological arousal (e.g., elevated heart rate), negative thoughts (e.g., being negatively evaluated), and behavioral disruptions (e.g., verbal disfluency; Ayres & Hopf 1993).
The causes of speech anxiety can be attributed to trait (enduring) or state (situational) factors. The trait explanations include learned helplessness, modeling, and genetic predisposition. From the ‘learned helplessness’ perspective, people develop speech anxiety because they learn to associate negative outcomes with speaking, such as being ridiculed by peers. According to the ‘modeling’ explanation, people develop speech anxiety when they cannot learn proper speaking skills from others. More recently, some scholars have argued that communication fear, such as speech anxiety, is mostly genetically determined. Despite these different explanations, many scholars hold the ‘interaction’ view, i.e., that the interaction between genes and environment results in speech anxiety (Daly et al. 2009).
Regarding state anxiety, there are eight situational factors: novelty (new experience), formality (formal situation), conspicuousness (too noticeable), subordinate status (inferior to audience), unfamiliarity (unfamiliar audience), dissimilarity (different from audience), degree of attention (too little or too much), and degree of evaluation. Many scholars believe that trait anxiety predisposes speakers to experience these situational factors in certain ways, which in turn affects their state anxiety level (Daly et al. 2009).
Ayres’ component theory further argued that state anxiety can be predicted by the interaction of the speaker’s nervous system sensitivity, and self-perceptions of motivation, negative evaluation, and communication competence (Daly et al. 2009). Speakers experience high levels of state anxiety when they are very sensitive to environmental changes, are motivated to accomplish a goal via speech, anticipate being negatively evaluated by others, and perceive themselves as having low speaking ability.
The three primary approaches to measuring trait and state public speaking anxiety are self-report scales (e.g., Personal Report of Public Speaking Anxiety), physiological instruments (e.g., measure of heart rate), and observers’ ratings (e.g., tense bodily movement).
- Ayres, J. & Hopf, T. S. (1993). Coping with speech anxiety. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
- Daly, J., McCroskey, J. C., Ayres, J., Hopf, T., Ayres, D. M., & Wongprasert, T. K. (eds.) (2009). Avoiding communication: Shyness, reticence, and communication apprehension, 3rd edn. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
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