When I tell friends that I was on my high school’s speech and debate team, and that more specifically, I did something called extemporaneous speaking—a category where I had to make and then deliver a speech on a current events topic I drew in just half an hour—they tend to be horrified at the thought of trying to do the same thing, impressed that I was able to do this, or a little bit of both. Then, when I add that this experience with speech and debate significantly improved my comfort level with public speaking, some of the people who hear this say that they are so terrified of public speaking.
And it’s not just anecdotal experience that has shown me that a lot of us are afraid of public speaking. A survey of Americans’ top fears in 2020-21 found that 29% were either afraid or very afraid of public speaking. Another way to put this into context is that there are about as many Americans likely to be afraid of public speaking as they are of dying, theft of property, or being unemployed. Our society, on average, is literally as fearful of public speaking as of dying. Let that sink in.
In spite of that fear, public speaking is an important aspect of the daily lives of most people of professional importance. Elected officials, major company CEOs, teachers and professors, nonprofit leaders, influential small business owners, clergy people, newscasters, and athletes are all among the groups of people who find themselves doing public speaking with some frequency. The professions that some, or many, of us aspire to involve some form of public speaking—the very thing that terrifies so many of us as well.
To make those aspirations a more feasible reality for those of us who fear public speaking, I think that public speaking needs to be a part of every high school’s curriculum. Not college—high school. It should be in the curriculum at that level because not everyone completes college, and not everyone even goes to college. Some people end up in positions straight out of high school where the skill of communicating clearly through word of mouth, which is something that comes with learning how to be a good public speaker, is absolutely vital. If we were to wait until college, people who end up in the military straight out of high school (the military being one such position where good communication skills are vital), to use one example, might not be as well-equipped with a public speaking skillset as they would otherwise if it were taught in high school.
As to how it is in the curriculum, it can take multiple forms. Classes with projects where students have to present their projects in front of a class might be a healthy way to give students exposure to public speaking, even if the focus of the class itself isn’t public speaking per se. However, I think that there can (and probably should) be a public speaking class that is a required part of every high school’s curriculum, for every student—not just a speech and debate team that students can choose to either join or not join.
Perhaps, by making sure that every student gets exposed with the opportunity to learn how to perfect their public speaking skills, we can better ensure that public speaking is not a fear that acts as a mental block to pursuing the things some of us hope to do one day.