An Exercise to Reduce Public Speaking Anxiety and Create Community in the Classroom

In public speaking classes or classes where there are oral presentations, students often enter these environments with a bit of anxiety and trepidation about speaking in front of others. Providing in-class activities as early as possible in the semester, that allow students to share things about themselves in an informal and positive environment, can not only help contribute to their public speaking comfort level, it can also lead to community-building throughout the course. As the class progresses, students exhibit a greater likeliness to support each other, relax around each other, and even feel like they’re getting to know each other better.

This activity can be used in a variety of ways. I use it in my Fundamentals of Oral Communication classes when we address subject matter about the power of language and how language shapes attitudes, with a particular focus on naming. Names play very influential roles in our human interaction. Names can impact how people see themselves, how others think of them, and how people behave. Names also impact how people develop and strengthen their sense of identity (Adler, Rodman & du Pre, 2014). Elements of this activity can also serve as an icebreaker at the beginning of semester.

What’s the story of your name? I begin the lesson by giving my story. During the class period, each student shares his/her story. This activity does several things. It gives the student a chance to tell a personal story in their own words and where they are the expert. It provides an opportunity to address the class as an audience, but it’s informal. I have students sit in their seats so they don’t feel the nervousness of standing in front of the class.

If instructors would like to require students to speak in front of the class, they should help them feel comfortable doing so, and this exercise provides a means for creating a supportive learning environment. It allows us all to get to know each other in a more personal way without the students feeling as if they are sharing something too private. It also adds some levity to the classroom environment. Oftentimes, the stories are humorous; “I was named after my father’s ex-girlfriend.” “I was named after my mother’s favorite soap opera star.” Or, they exhibit a familial richness; “My parents combined parts of my maternal and paternal grandmothers’ names.”

Students tend to enjoy the activity because, in many cases, they haven’t given their names too much thought. I share story behind the origin of my name, as well, and it allows them to gain some insight into my background. It also allows them to see those cultural, familial, and social connections that can come from the process of being named.

If instructors have more time or would like to take the discussion further, they can ask these other questions:

Would you change your first name and why? When I’ve asked this question, few students have admitted to wanting to change their names, but those who do, typically share that it’s simply because they just don’t like it.

Do you hope to get married one day? If so, will you take your spouse’s last name, keep your original name, create a blended name, a hyphenated last name, or any other manifestation of naming? If students are already married, have them share their decisions and why. Besides issues of identity and social norms, this often sparks some rich discussion about same-sex couples.

Do you plan on having children and what, if any names have you chosen for your future children? Many of the students seem to have a lot of fun sharing this and it’s revealing to see how much thought many of them have given to this topic.

To add to the interactivity of the assignment, you can ask the students to take out their phones, laptops or tablets, and see if they can find the meaning of their name. They can discuss if they see any relationship between their personality traits and the name’s meaning. Still, one additional element I like to conclude with is pulling up a list of popular names along with the names celebrities give their children. In many cases, celebrities tend to give their children very unique names and the discussion contributes to creating a relaxed and entertaining classroom environment.

These activities are a lot of fun and students enjoy talking about their names and the rationale for their name choices. Instructors are encouraged to use all or any of these activities given the goals they’re looking to address. The discussions not only create a more relaxed and supportive environment but also begin to unfurl discussions around relevant course material, such as gender, culture, identity, and impromptu speaking.

Adler, R., Rodman, G. & du Pre, A. (2014). Understanding human communication. New York: Oxford University Press

Stacey A. Peterson, associate professor and chair of communication arts, Notre Dame of Maryland University.