Choking on your words
I can still remember the last presentation I ever did in high school.
It was for grade 10 English. The assignment required an analysis followed by a 15-minute presentation in front of the class.
Up until that point, this was the longest presentation of my academic career. I rehearsed in front of my mirror until my lips were dry. I rewrote it several times to take out difficult words. I did breathing exercises. I did everything I could think of.
The presentation would’ve still followed the same trajectory even if I had rehearsed for a lifetime—my body shaking as I stood up in front of the class and sputtered the words out.
I received a C- on the presentation and the comments attached stated, “You swallow your words.” I wasn’t swallowing my words, I was choking on them.
When I tried to voice my anxiety to my teacher and offered to do more written assignments, she firmly told me, “Lots of people get nervous doing presentations, I can’t give you special privileges. You just have to get over it.”
In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to do any more presentations and I flunked the class.
The experience left me feeling guilty and ashamed. I continuously wondered if I should’ve taken my teacher’s advice and “just get over it.”
In recent years, it’s become increasingly apparent that many students are struggling with anxiety. In a study conducted by the Journal of Developmental and Behavioural Paediatrics, it was found that anxiety is increasing at a faster rate than depression as the leading mental health issue affecting teenagers.
While presentations may not be the root of anxiety disorders, they can definitely amplify them.
Abi Sellathurai, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, remembers the overwhelming anxiety that would fill her whenever she had an upcoming presentation. Leading up to the presentation, she would perform poorly on tests and assignments for other classes and would even lose sleep.
Similarly to my experience in high school, she recalls incidents when she took failing grades over presenting.
“I don’t regret it,” she says. “The anxiety over doing an oral presentation wasn’t worth losing focus on my other commitments.”
There has been a long-standing belief that presentations can enhance oral communication skills, which has been identified as one of the key professional traits that hiring managers seek out. Other advocates for presentations believe that it can be a form of exposure therapy that creates habituation and can build self-efficacy by pushing people to step out of their comfort zones.
There is research to support this claim—a study published in Communication Education found that students who participated within a fundamentals of communication course reported lower levels of public speaking anxiety following the conclusion of the course. But is it a one size fits all approach?
Cossette Massa, a recent graduate of Ryerson University, has facilitated multiple professional panels at numerous conventions. While she believes that it can be beneficial to push people out of their comfort zones, it has to be done in a healthy way and should never result in aggravating an already existing anxiety disorder.
“A presentation can seem like a small thing, but it can have lasting, negative rippling effects in students,” Massa says.
It’s a belief that Sellathurai echoes. She points out that ultimately, you can only be pushed so many times out of your comfort zone to face the same fear.
“It doesn’t seem fair,” she says. “If you’ve already given it so many tries, then you know that you don’t enjoy it and it only produces constant anxiety.”
Catharine Violante, who recently completed a bachelor of education at York University, highlights that with the modern age, the definition of communication has transformed drastically. The introduction of multiple technological tools has created many opportunities for students to achieve their academic goals without relying on traditional oral presentations.
Massa suggests that one technological solution students could employ is pre-recording their presentation. This could lessen some of the pressure of speaking in front of a large audience but still gives the student the opportunity to share their work.
Violante also acknowledges that there needs to be an increase in awareness around social and generalized anxiety disorders—especially in the classroom.
“I think the fact that students would rather take a failing grade [over presenting] should be a huge wake-up call,” she says.
In terms of the overall curriculum structure, Violante says that while there is serious work that needs to be done, some evolutions are already transpiring at the classroom level.
“Teachers are allowed to provide accommodations without modifying the curriculum,” she says. “These can include various support resources and alternative assignments that still fulfil the curriculum-level learning goals.”
Sellathurai recalls that instead of traditional oral presentations, one of her teachers during her senior year of high school gave students the option of making art projects, writing a story, designing web pages or producing short films. She says she enjoyed the freedom it gave her to build her communication skills within the medium she felt most comfortable with.
It’s an approach that needs to be more widely adopted by educators teaching with the modern era, Sellathurao says, as the conversation around anxiety and other mental health struggles continue to grow.
While I never did any more presentations while I was in high school, I was able to later facilitate seminars while earning my masters in English. No, I didn’t outgrow my fears but I did outgrow letting unsupportive teachers stifle my voice.
When I reached out to my professors with my concerns, I was met with compassion and accommodations which gave me the courage to lead discussions with my peers through the use of handouts and visual aids—all while remaining safely tucked away in my comfort zone.
About the author
Olivia Matheson-Mowers is a former reporter for Youth Mind. When she’s not writing, or playing with her cat, Daisy, you can find her curled up in her heated blanket watching seasons 1-6 of Dragon Ball Z and complaining about seasons 7-9.