Public speaking with knocking knees

The very thought of public speaking is enough to make some people anxious. But it is something you can learn, says linguistics PhD candidate Jelena Golubovic.

Your heart beats faster, your motor skills fail and you are drowning in sweat, yet somehow your mouth is bone dry. With knocking knees, you walk to the front of the room, but it only gets worse from there. Your eyelid begins twitching uncontrollably, giving your audience the impression that you are constantly winking at them.

Up to 90 per cent of the Dutch population is afraid of public speaking to some extent, according to experts. It can be a major bummer, but Golubovic says there is hope.

Doing wonders

Golubovic (27) recently became a part time teacher at the RUG in the European Languages and Culture department. In the interest of her new job, she decided to become a member of Toastmasters and work on her presentation skills. ‘It has done wonders for me’, she says. ‘You can do something about it in a fun way.’


Experts say that around 90 per cent of Dutch people suffer from glossophobia, which is fear of public speaking. Where does this fear come from? Maaike Nauta, a senior lecturer of clinical psychology at the RUG, explains: ‘Children are born with a certain character, an innate temperament. Some children are frightened by new things while others find them interesting. But children also imitate many things. If a child’s parents do not like being in the spotlight, the child often adopts that behaviour as well. However, a master model [a perfect example, ed.], who has no fear whatsoever and can speak perfectly in front of a group – is also not good. The best example for a child is somebody who finds it challenging, yet despite that still does it. Then, children think: ‘If he can do it, then so can I!’’

According to Golubovic, there are numerous courses and workshops available in Groningen. Participants in such programmes mostly practice presenting in front of an audience. Each week, they get together to train with a regular group. They give each other feedback for various points, such as preparation, voice, structure, visual aids (such as PowerPoint), posture and eye contact.

The RUG itself also offers various workshops and courses for staff and students via the Student Service Centre (SSC) and Next. The prices for these RUG services range from 15 to 40 euros. Additionally, there are groups such as Toastmasters and Stranger Things Have Happened (STHH). Toastmasters, which is especially popular with graduating students and recent graduates, costs 90 euros for six months.

Much too challenging

‘Nine out of ten students take a course with us because they have a fear of public speaking’, says Anne-Miek Hermsen, trainer and career counsellor at the SSC. ‘Fear is a part of it. Giving a presentation is not something which students do every day, but when they have to do it, they want to do it perfectly. They set the bar too high and that makes it much too challenging. I want students to leave our course with the feeling that they are capable of giving a good presentation.’

But how do you get over that fear? You just have to tackle it head on, says Maaike Nauta, senior lecturer of clinical psychology at the RUG. ‘The more you give presentations, the better’, she explains. ‘But suppose that it is rooted very deeply: in that case, you should figure out what it is that you are most scared of. Are you scared to give your opinion or to ask a question in class? Try it out and practice that first.’