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Why Does Your Voice Fail You During Public Speaking?

Many people struggle with a fear of public speaking. Such fear can impact voice control leading to stammering or feeling like there is a “frog in your throat.”

Now a new study finds that stress-induced brain activations might be to blame for these voice issues that often arise in public speaking situations.

“For many, public speaking can be a stressful situation,” said Dr. Maria Dietrich, an associate professor of speech, language and hearing sciences at the University of Missouri (MU) School of Health Professions,

“We know that stress can trigger physiological changes such as muscle tension and that can impact our speech. The new findings will help researchers better understand the relationship between stress and vocal control and will allow us to pinpoint the brain activations that impact voices to identify better treatments for disorders.”

In a pilot study, Dietrich discovered that stress-induced brain activations could lead to voice disorders such as muscle tension dysphonia, a disorder from excessive or altered muscle tension in and around the voice box changing the sound or feel of one’s voice.

For the study, young women who were pre-screened to participate were told that they had to prepare for a five-minute impromptu speech about why they were the best candidate for a job.

The speech preparation test served as a stressor, but participants were never prompted to give their speech — they were only asked to read sentences as they prepared for it. Researchers collected samples of saliva to test for cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, in intervals before the stressor until approximately 50 minutes after.

The participants were also asked a series of questions to determine their emotional state. They also underwent MRI scans so the researchers to see brain activations and how they impacted speech with and without stressful speech preparation.

The results reveal differences in stress-induced brain activations related to speech. Participants who exhibited higher cortisol responses also exhibited brain activity that impacted the larynx region in the brain and had lower scores on aspects of extraversion.

“Our findings are consistent with theories of vocal traits related to personality,” Dietrich said. “Those who are more introverted are more likely to have stress reactions related to speaking and their brains are registering that stress, which could impact their vocal control.”

Dietrich offers the following advice for those who feel stressed about public speaking:

  • Don’t worry about the audience not smiling. Just because people might not be reacting to your public address, it doesn’t mean they are judging you.
  • Present with an inner smile and remember to breathe; taking a deep breath can go a long way to calm nerves.
  • Acknowledge that feeling nervous is normal.

Source: University of Missouri-Columbia


Why Does Your Voice Fail You During Public Speaking?

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2019). Why Does Your Voice Fail You During Public Speaking?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 29 Jul 2019 (Originally: 29 Jul 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 29 Jul 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.