Creating confidence: the power of presentational talk

by Dr James Mannion

This is the fifth in a series of six extracts from Fear is the Mind Killer: Why Learning to Learn deserves lesson time – and how to make it work for your pupils.

The feedback we have received so far has been pretty phenomenal. You can read all the very kind things people have said about it here. And you can buy it here (John Catt) or here (Amazon).

Here are all the posts in this series:

This post is about the importance of being able to stand a the front of a room and deliver a knockout speech.


Rationale for presentational talk

Depending on which survey you read, somewhere between 25% and 75% of people say they have a fear of public speaking. [1], [2] This fear runs deep. As we mentioned in Chapter 3: Learning to Learn on trial, surveys have repeatedly found that many people rank their fear of public speaking higher than their fear of death. [3], [4] As Jerry Seinfeld observed, this leads to the alarming conclusion that if they were at a funeral, many people would rather be in the coffin than deliver the eulogy!

Like many aspects of human psychology, the fear of public speaking is a spectrum condition. At the extreme end is ‘glossophobia’, a recognised social anxiety disorder. Thankfully, glossophobia is relatively rare. However, it is clear that many people experience at least some degree of anxiety and/or nervousness around public speaking, and endeavour to avoid it at all costs. As Alan Howe has written on these pages:

‘even if we don’t suffer from the phobia, many of us are familiar with the feeling of heightened anxiety associated with speaking in front of an audience, especially when the stakes are high, for example: when talking about a topic for the first time; to a large, unknown audience; or to an audience of known peers. We may worry about being judged (both on what we say but also because of how we sound). The knowledge that everyone is watching, waiting on your next words, can be debilitating. Or simple lack of experience may make the demands of the context seem overwhelming.’ [5]

Much of this is perfectly rational. When you address a group of people, you’re in the spotlight and naturally you want it to go well. But no matter how well you have rehearsed what you want to say, when you aren’t used to that kind of exposure, your body can betray you with wildly unhelpful responses; your hands shake; your mouth goes unbelievably dry; your mind goes blank under the pressure.

I can certainly recall that feeling of abject terror at the prospect of public speaking that I felt as a student, and even as an early career teacher. Nowadays, I regularly address large rooms of people – a prospect that would have filled me with terror only a few years ago – often without so much as a second thought. I am far from unique in this regard. It has long been known that the most powerful way to overcome a fear is to expose yourself to the thing that terrifies you – so-called exposure therapy. [6] There is abundant evidence that the best way to help people overcome their fear of public speaking is to get them doing public speaking. [7], [8], [9] Indeed, the sense of anxiety often declines significantly once you get up there, a phenomenon known as ‘within-session habituation’. [10] In this case, the words ‘just do it, you‘ll be fine’ are actually true!

This does not mean that we should throw students in at the deep end. We don’t want to completely overwhelm them and reinforce their fears. We need to allow the gradient to be shallow or as steep as each student needs it to be in order to push them to the edge of their comfort zone. The journey to success is fast for some students; for others, it can require many steps – modelling, explaining, deconstructing, coaching, mentoring and allowing students to practice in non-threatening ways (e.g. to just two or three people, or just to the teacher, or only saying a few words at first, or using cue cards). The main thing is to continue to gradually increase the difficulty level for each student – speaking to more people, or different groups, for increasing lengths of time, without cue cards and so on – until they can present confidently, from memory, using a range of rhetorical language devices.

Sometimes, people object to this idea, saying things like ‘if a student doesn’t want to do public speaking, it’s cruel to force them to do it.’ But do we allow them to opt out of other things they find challenging or unpleasant – some aspect of maths, say? Of course not – and nor should we make excuses for their fear of public speaking, We should acknowledge it, show them we understand and recall only too well how they feel, and then calmly but persistently support them in getting to the point where they can experience success. In a small number of cases, a student might have a recognised social anxiety condition where we may wish to make an exception. But such instances are extremely rare. By the time they leave school, the vast majority of young people should be able to comfortably address a class, if not a hall full of adults, without notes. The boost such an experience can give to a young person’s confidence and self-esteem is quite remarkable; we have seen it happen many times. We now run a one-day ‘Language of Power’ workshop (for either students or teachers), and you can almost see some of the students walking an inch taller by the end of the day. Realising that they can be the person at the front of the room changes their perception of who they are, and what they can achieve in the future.

In the Sea View study, we interviewed a range of students and also looked at what they wrote in their learning journals. In particular, we were interested in exploring whether and how the Learning Skills curriculum helped students learn more effectively in their other lessons. Here are some relevant excerpts – see if you can spot a common theme:

’Learning Skills has helped me learn better in subjects because I’ve got a lot more confident.’

The thing I am most proud of this year is the “Who am I” project because I learnt how to stand up in front of a big group of people confidently.’

The thing I am most proud of from my first year at Sea View is confidence because I’m a lot smarter [and] I can speak up more.’

Now I have the courage to speak in all of my classes.’

‘Learning Skills has helped me so much. It’s taught me to stand up for myself and what I want to say is important. I have found my voice and I think more harder than I ever have in using the right language.’

It is perfectly possible to go through life without ever addressing a large group of people. However, this should be based on choice, rather than an inability to cope should the situation arise. It is important, therefore, that we teach young people these skills – and help them develop the sense of confidence that will enable them to take this world by the scruff of the next and mould it to their will.

What does it look like in practice?

At Sea View, there was an expectation that at the end of each project, all students would present an aspect of their work to their teacher and their peers in a ‘teachable moment’. As I described above, some students required a gentler gradient – at first, we would allow them to present just to a small group, or to the teacher in a one-to-one session. Whenever we did this, audience members would fill out an A5 feedback sheet, using the time-honoured ‘What Went Well/Even Better If’ format. At first, we were a bit nervous that student feedback might be dangerously blunt, but we found that our students were often highly adept at softening the edges of their critical feedback.  No doubt it helped to know that they too would take their turn in the spotlight!

Within a half-term, we found that even the most nervous students were keen to give it a go, having seen their friends do it and seeing the buzz that surrounds public speaking. They wanted a piece of it for themselves – even if they were terrified. We allowed students to choose the level of challenge they would attempt to meet – speaking with no notes was considered to be the highest level of difficulty.

Since we left Sea View, we have become better acquainted with the ancient art of rhetoric – thanks in part to an excellent TEDx talk by the speechwriter Simon Lancaster, which outlines several tricks of the trade. [11] If we had our time again, this is an aspect of the Learning Skills course that we would pay more attention. We would also provide the ‘Language of Power’ training for all teaching staff, so that whenever teachers ask children to present their findings to the class, we would be able to use consistent language and expectations for how to achieve success in public speaking.

In the final post in this series, I will turn my attention to philosophical enquiry – an incredibly powerful approach to developing young people’s thinking and reasoning skills, as well as their speaking and listening skills.



[1] Tsaousides, T. (2017) Why Are We Afraid of Speaking in Public? Psychology Today, November 27. Available at:

[2] Lake, R. (2015) Fear of Public Speaking Statistics and How to Overcome Glossophobia. Available at:

[3] Dwyer, K. & Davidson, M. (2012). Is Public Speaking Really More Feared Than Death?. Communication Research Reports, 29, 99-107. In one study, the rank order of fears reported is as follows: Speaking before a group, 40.6%; Heights, 32.0%; Insects and Bugs, 22.0%; Financial problems, 22.0; Deep water, 21.5%; Sickness, 18.8%; Death, 18.7%; Flying, 18.3%: Loneliness, 13.6%; Dogs, 11.2%; Driving or riding in a car, 8.8%; Darkness, 7.9%; Elevators, 7.6%; Escalators, 4.8%.

[4] Burgess, K. (2013) Speaking in public is worse than death for most. The Times, October 30. Available at:

[5] Howe, A. (2018) Upgrading oracy: placing ‘spoken delivery and response’ at the heart of the curriculum. Oracy Cambridge. Available at:

[6] Chambless, D.L., Ollendick, T.H. (2001). ‘Empirically supported psychological interventions: Controversies and Evidence’. Annual Review of Psychology. 52 (1): 685–716.

[7] Nash, G., Crimmins, G., & Oprescu, F. (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, 586-600.

[8] Malouff, J. M., & Emmerton, A. J. (2014). Students Can Give Psychology Away: Oral Presentations on YouTube. Psychology Learning & Teaching13(1), 38–42.

[9] Andolina, M.W., & Conklin, H.G. (2018) Speaking With Confidence and Listening With Empathy: The Impact of Project Soapbox on High School Students, Theory & Research in Social Education, 46:3, 374-409.

[10] Finn, A.N., Sawyer, C.R., Schrodt, P. (2009) Examining the Effect of Exposure Therapy on Public Speaking State Anxiety. Communication Education, 58 (1), 92-109.

[11] Lancaster, S. (2016) Speak like a leader. Presentation at TEDx Verona. Available at:

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