Top Hat Blog

Q&A with Professor George Griffin: The Secret to Overcoming the Thing We Fear More Than Death

By Nick Stein

Published on November 15, 2016.

A recent study of America’s top 25 fears by Chapman University lists public speaking ahead of earthquakes, drunk drivers, insects and even death itself. It is a visceral fear Professor George Griffin knows well. A professor of speech at Keiser University in Orlando, Florida, Griffin has dedicated the past 30 years to helping students overcome the fear of speaking in front of an audience, while simultaneously teaching them how to build and deliver effective presentations. When it comes to public speaking, it turns out competence goes hand-in-hand with confidence.

George GriffinGeorge Griffin, Professor of Speech at Keiser University in Orlando, Florida

Professor Griffin, working with a group of colleagues from across the country, has compiled his learnings into a new immersive, interactive textbook on the Top Hat platform. Recently, Griffin spoke to Top Hat about what it takes to prepare students to deliver effective presentations with confidence — and why he believes the interactive format will dramatically improve the ability to teach this vital, challenging subject.

Top Hat: What are the biggest issues your students have with public speaking? And how do you address them in your classes — and in the new interactive textbook?

So we are going to teach you how to be good, but we’re also going to teach you to feel good about it, so you don’t have to be intimidated anymore.

Professor Griffin: One of the biggest weaknesses of textbooks in general is that they cannot address the thing that students want more than anything, which is to build their confidence level to overcome their nervousness. The two things you hear the most from students are, “I want to be a better speaker,” and “I want to overcome my nervousness.” And not necessarily in that order. When we thought about applying those concepts to the [interactive] textbook, we translated it into competence and confidence. So we are going to teach you how to be good, but we’re also going to teach you to feel good about it, so you don’t have to be intimidated anymore.

TH: So how do you overcome that tremendous fear? What are the techniques you have found to be most useful?

PG: If you look at Chapter Two in the book, it’s an extremely detailed chapter with dozens of ideas about how to overcome nervousness. Because everybody’s nervousness is a little bit different. So we tried to address most common things people experience and how to overcome them. But also some things that are less common, and how to overcome those too.

The most obvious one of all, why people get scared to death when they stand in front of an audience, is that they get this feeling, “Oh my God, everybody’s looking at me.” All of a sudden you’ve got a room of eyes on you. And that’s nerve wracking. There’s no denying that. That’s scary. The worst thing you can do is to stare back at them, because that just drills into your brain that you’re being stared at by this group of people. So I work with my classes to look for one friendly face in the room that’s looking at you right now. Look at them and pretend no one else exists. Because everyone one of us has one-on-one conversations with people we don’t know, and it doesn’t intimidate us. And when you see them smile and look back at you, that’s positive feedback. And then you shift your gaze at someone else. And that’s one of the most common techniques people need to understand. Don’t avoid eye contact with your audience. Just make eye contact with individual people one on one.

Another important technique is to dissect your stage fright. If you can identify precisely the thing you’re afraid is going to go wrong, you can then focus on addressing it. Everything from, “they’re going to heckle me,” to “I’m going to forget my conclusion.” Whatever it is, let’s look at exactly what you’re afraid of rather than a generalized fear of public speaking. And then you can put steps in place to overcome that.

A technique that’s very effective but you don’t hear much about is to put an image in your speaker’s notes that makes you feel better. Senator Elizabeth Warren did this when she first got into politics. She put a picture of herself and her grandkids in with her speaker notes. So when she looked down at the picture she’d smile and feel better. You’re not going to find that technique in most textbooks.

TH: Let’s talk about the competence aspect of public speaking. Can you describe a few techniques you use to help students develop more compelling presentations?

PG: I like to talk about the difference between writing speeches from the top down instead of from the inside out. When most people start writing a speech, they will do it top down. What’s the first thing I’m going to say? And they write it down. And then the next thing. And so on until the end. It seems so logical. But if you write your speeches from the inside out it’s going to be so much easier to write. So much more targeted. And it’s going to fall together.

In the book we put together a five step formula about how you can become a better speech writer by writing from the inside out. Step one you do brainstorming and research. Once you know what your topic is going to be, you start making a list of things that pop into your head. Don’t censor it or filter it. Just write it down. Then go and do your research. See what else you can find. Look for stories, statistics, anecdotes and add them to your list. So when you’re done with step one you’ve got a long list of ideas that might go into the presentation.

Step two is to start grouping those ideas. Sift through the list and form main ideas into groups. The groups you are naturally forming will evolve into the main points of your presentation.

In the book we put together a five step formula about how you can become a better speech writer by writing from the inside out.

Third step is to start to prioritize. You look at the groups of things you came up with and ask yourself which ones absolutely need to be in the presentation, and put them in order of importance. Then put the groups in order of how you want to speak. “Which ones do I want to talk about first? Second? Third?”

Once you’ve done this step you’ve pretty much built the body of your speech. Now you step back start working on the finishing touches: your purpose statement, your preview statement. What are you going to tell the audience that the speech is all about? Well, that’s easy now. It’s already done. And then you finish the speech by writing your introduction and conclusion. Everyone understands why you’d wait until the end to write your conclusion. Often you’re just summarizing what’s in the body, and that’s easier to do when it’s done. But why do the introduction at the end? Because now that you know where the speech is going it’s a lot easier to figure out how to lead people in. Plus, when you went through the grouping process, some of the stuff you thought would make it into the speech didn’t. So you’ve got a pile of leftovers. Go through that and see if there’s a data point or an anecdote or a story you can use that sums up what the speech is all about. You may have a good opening or closing sitting in the pile that didn’t make it into the speech.

That five step formula: brainstorming and research; grouping and prioritizing; purpose statement and preview statement; and introduction and conclusion. I’ve had more students than you can imagine come up to me and say, “Damn, speech writing is easy.”

TH: Why write another textbook on Public Speaking? What issues do you see with the other books out there today that motivated you to develop an interactive textbook with Top Hat?

PG: Traditional textbooks are boring. They are dull. They really don’t capture the students’ attention. I think so many times we try to get students to think of being great “orators” that we ignore the idea of everyday public speaking — and the effectiveness that you can have on the society if you just learn how to express yourself. And so we put it at this lofty level. As a result, the students don’t get interested in it and they see it as something that doesn’t really apply to them. And to me that was the hardest part of trying to get students to see, “No, this is really for you.” Even though you’re not going to give speeches for a living, you’ve got to get up and talk to the school board sometimes when they’re passing rules about your kid’s class, and you’ve got to get up and talk to the county council, or just go in and talk to your boss about what’s going on at work. You’ve got to have that confidence level and that ability to put your thoughts together. You give a kid a textbook and they read it and go, “ok fine, I’ve got to learn this or I can’t do this course.” But they’re not seeing how it really applies to them.

To me, we’re filling a gap. The idea of the interactive digital book is obviously new age and progressive, and it works. The students are engaged with it, they read it, they pay attention to it. The package we put together for this book in addition to the content itself — PowerPoint presentation for each chapter, in class activities for every chapter, quiz questions — can be a “textbook in a box” for someone new to teaching public speaking, and a valuable addition to an old-timer who has been teaching for a while. That kind of adaptability and flexibility for wherever you are in your teaching career.

TH: Is there a particular area of public speaking you feel traditional textbooks don’t do a good job of addressing?

PG: Over 30 years collecting books on public speaking, I realized my entire bookshelf, every textbook was spending only one or two percent of the book on overcoming nervousness. And I thought, that’s ridiculous. That is the biggest thing students want. That comes up more than anything else. And they are devoting five pages of the book to that. But they will spend 20 pages on how to write a persuasive argument. And that’s not what students want.

The problem most textbooks have is they will cover the three or four most common issues. And then students read it and say, “that’s fine, but it doesn’t apply to me. That’s not what I’m nervous about.”

A few years ago I did an exercise where I asked students to come up and tell me one or two different things they were going to try to address their fear of public speaking. And what surprised me was that there weren’t a few common issues that came up again and again. Everyone had something different.

So what we tried to do with the new book is to look at how many different ways there are to deal with your nervousness, so students can find a specific way to deal with their concerns.

TH: You’ve been using the book in your classes for a few months now. What was your students’ initial reaction to the new textbook?

PG: There’s usually an initial hesitation because it’s something totally different for them. But once they understand what it is, they’re perfectly fine with it. Once we get past that initial, “‘this is different” phase, they get right into a routine and they’re fine with it.

TH: Any preliminary findings in terms of improved grades, attendance or classroom engagement?

PG: There are a lot of students that try to skate by without getting their textbook and they just try to you know, “fake it.” It’s not just in our classes; students just do that. With Top Hat I can now verify that the students that are actually getting the interactive textbooks are scoring higher on all of their quizes and their speeches because they are getting the material better, they’re understanding it better. So the grades are definitely higher for the ones who are using the interactive textbook than the ones who are trying to get by without using it. And I think that correlates to what we had before when we were using a traditional textbook because there were more students who were just not reading it. But now we have visibility into who is using the textbook.

TH: What do you have to say to professors who are reluctant to adopt these new kinds of technology in their classes?

PG: You’re going to get left behind. If you’re not willing to accept new technology, you’re not paying attention to what’s happening in the world of education… Education today has to look at how students learn and then back up how they learn with how we teach. If we understand what it takes to get students to understand the lessons we’ll be willing to move in that direction and that’s exactly what we’ve done with this book.

To access the article on the blog, click here.