Shawn Tierney May 1, 2000

English 301W


My I-Search Paper



Why I chose my topic.

When I was young, I never had a problem putting on a show. My friend and I would make up "routines" on her gym-set. We made invitations and invited whoever would come. We loved the attention. Even throughout school, high school included, I was always able to get up in front of my classmates and do whatever was asked of me. Then came college. All of a sudden my confidence for public speaking was gone.

When we first received this assignment I had a million ideas. I wanted to do something with languages or traveling. The list was endless, but it contained one flaw. Whatever I chose I would have to present. No matter where my free writings took me they always came back to the presentation. Then it hit me. I can research why I am freaking out and what I can do to stop it. Hopefully, the information I find will help this to be the first time I successfully complete a presentation.

What I already know.

I know that personally I can get up in front of children to sing and dance and act like a complete fool. I also do not usually have a problem reading to perfect strangers. I believe the problem comes when I have to be original. I have a hard time reading things that I have written myself.

I have received a lot of advice. Most of it is ridiculous. There is the oldest advice about picturing the audience in their underwear. That has never worked for me. My friend told me to drink a few beers before I have to speak. I figured that would be a good idea if I would not get in trouble for it. I doubt if it was a work presentation that her tactics would help me. Some other advice I received was to tape record myself and find a cardboard cut out to put in front of the room, and then just play the tape. As amusing as that would be, I do not think my teachers would appreciate it.

I suppose the main thing I know is I really bring all the anxiety onto myself. Once I failed the first time, I could never do it again. It sort of became expected that I would fail.

What I want to find out.

I want to know why this phobia came on all of a sudden. I want to know why I was perfectly fine before college and now I can not speak anymore.

I want to know why certain things are easier to do in front of people than others. Such as, I was able to sing for some two year olds, or read.

I want to know if there is some big secret to public speaking that I just do not know about yet. So this paper is my quest for the secret.


I started my research briefly on the World Wide Web. I used the search engine Ask Jeeves. It brought up several public speaking sites. Probably the most predominant was Toastmasters. This is at This is a sort of club that you can become a member of. They help you develop better public speaking skills. The problem is the site is very limited unless you become a member. They do however give you a few useful tips. The next site I came across was I liked this site. He put into words exactly how I feel when I speak and gave a brief explanation of why and what you can do to help. I also found a web site that explained the actual phobia side of public speaking, I liked this site because most of what I found did not actually deal with the fear. It was mostly tips to help you do it better, or examples of speeches. There were several other sites I found by using other search engines. I also used yahoo and dogpile. All three engines had the above mentioned sites in common.

As far as library research I found four books in our library. Two were informational books on public speaking and the other two actually mentioned the fear of public speaking. The best book I found was an older one. It had really interesting pictures in it. It was called Speak with comfort. It actually gave me an explanation of where the extra energy comes from. It also helps you develop the skills to use the energy to help instead of hurt you. It also goes step by step through all the processes involved in public speaking. The second book was How I Mastered My Fear of Public Speaking. This book was helpful in that it comes from personal experience of the author. The stories are interesting and useful. The other two books, How to Become a Successful Public Speaker and Public Speaking: The Essentials are more about the speech and how to make it interesting. I did pull several books off the shelf while I was looking. Most, however, did not seem to be what I was looking for.

My Interview

I opted to do a short interview with my father, Terry Tierney. He works for Rich Products as a Senior Director of Manufacturing. With this long title comes a lot of public speaking. He is constantly in meetings, either reporting to the higher up people or helping the people he manages. Both instances involve him speaking. He also occasionally has to speak at conventions in front of total strangers. I figured with all this speaking he must not mind. I was wrong.

How often to you have to speak publicly?

-Including small meeting, I would say at least three times a week.

Do you still get nervous before each time?

-Obviously some instances are more nerve racking than others are, but I am never totally comfortable getting up in front of a room full of people.

What sort of nervous symptoms do you have?

-The basics I guess. Depending again on circumstances, I get the "butterflies" in my stomach, sweaty palms.

Have you ever messed up a big speech?

-Oh sure, a few times.

What happened?

-I had gone down to Mexico and had to speak to a room full of customers. I was confused on my topic and did not prepare properly. I had no idea what I was talking about and sounded like a complete idiot.

What then?

-I stumbled through and everyone told me I did well anyways. But people will lie to you.

Do you have any advice on giving speeches?

-Go pee before you speak and do not have any change in your pockets.

Why no change?

-I tend to put my hands in my pockets and subconsciously play with the change. I am told the noise is not only distracting but also annoying.

My Survey

Along with the interview I thought it might be fun to do a survey. I asked random people I have run into the past couple weeks the following questions:

-Are you afraid to speak in public?

-What do you do to make it through if you are nervous?

The results were helpful and quite entertaining. I would say I asked around forty to fifty people from all walks of life. I asked people from school, teachers and students. I asked people I work with, which is a wide variety of old and young. I also asked friends and family. I became particularly interesting last weekend. A couple friends of mine had put together a mini music festival, consisting of both local bands and bands from other cities. I figured this was perfect because these people perform all the time. I was surprised to learn that all but one said they were afraid of public speaking. They all agreed that it was different to play for an audience than to give a formal presentation. They also said that audience reaction was the key. "When you get up there youíre thinking I hope they like us. Of course your nervous but at the same time excited. If the audience is into it the nerves go away and it becomes fun. If they hate you, you have to try to forget their even there and just get through the set." (Chris of the Mistreats, from Milwaukee, WI) As a matter of fact only one person out of everyone I asked said they were not afraid of public speaking.

Ironically the guy who said he wasnít afraid of public speaking was one who offered the drink before you speak advice. Which brings me to the second question of my survey. Tips to get over being nervous. I mentioned a few earlier in my paper; here are a few more. The obvious, (but also the one that never works), picture the audience in their underwear. I also received a lot of the "I just get up and do it" answers. That is not so easy for some of us. There were also several of the distraction suggestions. I was told to hand out papers, candy or anything that would take the focus off of me and onto whatever I was handing out. The same applies for visual aides. This way the audience is not really watching you. Out of everyone work, school, old, young, the most common response I received to question two was to drink some sort of alcohol beforehand. Automatically I asked those people if that is what they did when they had to speak. Surprisingly about half said yes. I am also surprised that these people still have jobs and never were kicked out of school. They say however the key is moderation. Drink just enough to build confidence but not so much its noticeable.

What I Learned

I learned so much from this I do not even know where to start. That is aside from the fact that a lot of people I know have a drinking problem. I learned from the books that the fear stems from making a fool of yourself and dates back as far as the cavemen. According to John Emmerson Hilbert, author of Speak with Comfort, the cavemen needed that burst of energy to defeat some very real monsters. That energy is ultimately supposed to help you in scary and stressful situations. The problem is when you have no outlet for it. It becomes shaky knees, dry mouth, faintness, trembling hands and voice, along with all the other symptoms of nerves. If you can learn to use this energy for what it is really for that is when your public speaking has really become effective. Basically, the reason I react the way I do is just excess adrenaline. If I can learn to relax and channel the energy towards my confidence and presentation then I will be okay.

I also learned from my web sources that this is a social phobia. It is chronic when untreated. Once you fail itís hard to get "back on the horse" again. One site even said that certain phobias, including public speaking, stem from an inner ear problem. If you take medication for an inner ear infection you can overcome your phobia. I am not so sure about that theory. It would be nice if I could just pop a pill and be done with it.

I learned all kinds of ways people deal with their fear. There are the classics, practice, be well prepared, and such. One that struck me was pretend. You are supposed to pretend you are confident. After a while all that pretending becomes real confidence.

I also learned, from doing my own presentation on this I-Search topic, that everyone was right. You have to just get up and do it. Not giving up is a big thing for me. When I was giving this presentation there came a time where I wanted to quit. I wanted to just sit down and cry about once again failing. Fortunately, the class and teacher would not allow me to fail; they forced me to go on. Because of that, however shaky and terrible the presentation was, I did the one thing I could not do before, I finished a presentation. That for me is a huge step. I definitely got something out of this project. I said in my introduction I wanted to successfully complete a presentation, and I did complete one. It is a first for me since high school.

Probably the most important thing I learned, though, is that there is no big secret to public speaking. There is only the individual reactions and whatever works for that person. I just need to sort though all the information I found and figure out what works for me. Although I think I prefer the tactic of just not putting myself in the situation where I will have to speak.

Where Can I Go From Here

From here I can go anywhere. There is so much information out there. Unfortunately, dealing with your own fear is something that all the advice in the world could not solve for you. If I was to continue on with this though, I would definitely do more survey type research. I had a lot of fun and it was so interesting. I just wish I could be as confident as the one person who claims he is not afraid of public speaking.



Braden, Waldo W. (1966). Public Speaking: The Essentials. New York, NY. Harper & Row.


Hilbert, John Emerson. (1986). Speak with Comfort. Dubuque, Iowa. Kendall/ Hunt Publishing Company.


Keller, Dr. Timothy W. Phobias: An Equal Opportunity Problem. March 1994. <>


Kurtus, Ronald. Overcome the Fear of Speaking to Groups. 29 January 2000. <>


Verio Southern California. Toastmasters International. 1998. <>


Wheeler, Elmer. (1957). How I Mastered My Fear of Public Speaking. New York, NY. Gramercy Publishing Company.


Zelko, Harold P. (1950). How to Become a Successful Speaker. New London, Connecticut. Bureau of Business Practice.