Students in speech and debate overcome public speaking fears

May 23, 2018 — by Patrick Li and Emilie Zhou

Her hands started to sweat and butterflies filled her stomach as junior Ruchi Maheshwari, then an eighth-grader, waited for her round at the speech and debate tournament to start. She took a few deep breaths to calm the anxiety growing inside of her.

Maheshwari had to face her fear of public speaking when she started speech and debate in middle school. She is not alone in her fear, as according to a survey conducted in 2014 by the Washington Post, a quarter of Americans admit to fearing speaking in front of a crowd, making public speaking the most common phobia in the country.

Maheshwari began speech and debate in sixth grade, because her parents wanted her to get an early exposure to public speaking and overcome the fears most people have.

In the first two years, her fear of public speaking still persisted, but as she became more involved and spent more time practicing, her confidence grew with her abilities.

Maheshwari’s main event is Extemporaneous speaking, which is a 30-minute preparation for a 7-minute speech on current events. She believes this elongated preparation time calms her nerves because she has a good idea of what to talk about going in to the speech.

Other events have acting and improv, whereas my event only centers around facts,” Maheshwari said. “It was easier for me to overcome my fear about public speaking because I could hide behind the facts when I ran out of what to say.”

In addition, Maheshwari believes that her coach at Redwood, Aditya J. Ullal, helped her overcome her fears. During practices, Ullal forced her to complete her speech no matter what happened. He didn’t take any excuses and would push her to keep going in her speech even if she messed up or wanted to start over. He was “super supportive” and by making her overcome her discomfort, he was able to help Maheshwari improve.

“My middle school coach was the first person to really push me to speak in front of people,” Maheshwari said. “I wasn’t super timid to start off, but I definitely was not the most outspoken person, so his encouragement was the push I needed.”

Maheshwari remembers a specific tournament during eighth grade at Stanford where she took a major step in overcoming her fear of public speaking. She had entered in both the international extemp and national extemp events, and her busy schedule had kept her distracted from all of her fears and anxiety.

“It was such a busy day with three or four rounds of each event that I didn’t even have time to eat that day,” Maheshwari said. “Because I was so busy, I didn’t have the time to build up anxiety in the waiting room before the round started.”

To Maheshwari’s surprise, she learned to control those feelings of fear and anxiety more and ended up doing well at that tournament, placing first in National Extemporaneous Speaking.

As time went on, Maheshwari slowly became more comfortable with public speaking and also saw improvements in her in-class presentations. By the time freshman year rolled around, Maheshwari had become “super comfortable” with public speaking and since then has continued to see improvements in her abilities.

“I love speech and debate because it’s a great way to improve your public speaking skills while keeping up with current events.” Maheshwari said.

Sophomore Prisha Samdarshi shares a similar experience of facing her fear of public speaking. Like Maheshwari, Samdarshi main event is extemporaneous speaking.

Before joining speech and debate at the beginning of sophomore year, Samdarshi struggled with public speaking and would always become nervous when talking in front of crowds.

“In class, I would be terrified of big presentations or speeches,” Samdarshi said. “I would also get really nervous to play any role in school plays. Because of this fear, I often held myself back from leadership positions.”

Samdarshi’s event did not have a coach during the first semester, so the team’s captains — Kyle Wang, Arian Raje and Maheshwari — had to fill in for that role. The trio captains played a big role in helping her overcome Samdarshi’s fears and insecurities.

At one of Samdarshi’s first practices of the year, the captains asked her to give an impromptu speech. She had two minutes to prepare and then had to speak for long as she could afterwards.

“I failed the impromptu speech really badly, but they gave me a lot of good advice on how to become a better speaker and how to think of things to say in a short amount of time,” Samdarshi said.

Not only did the captains help Samdarshi improve, but they also made practices fun and educational. For example, they held a mock tournament among the extemp students and promised Chipotle to the winner.

Even so, Samdarshi faced many obstacles.

“At my first speech and debate tournament, I did horribly, and it lowered my confidence a lot,” Samdarshi said. “I thought that I hadn't been speaking that badly, but when the judge's comments came back, they all said that I needed to improve on my fluency and eye contact.”

Despite the setback, Samdarshi feels more comfortable during public speaking and doesn’t get as nervous when addressing a large audience. Speech and debate has helped her overcome some of her fears for public speaking, and she has grown willing to “voice her opinions in class discussions.”

“Speech and debate showed me how to be more confident in front of an audience I had never been in front of,” Samdarshi said. “I practiced speaking for four hours every week, and after a while it didn’t feel like a burden, but more like something I enjoyed.”

Although Samdarshi and Maheshwari sometimes still feel the butterflies before a round, they know that they can overcome any fears they have.

“The major tip is to force yourself to do it and not allow yourself to get too psyched out,” Maheshwari said. “Go in and eliminate all the factors that can go wrong so that you can just focus on yourself and how you are presenting.”