Choke

What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to

The Fear of Public Speaking

Threat of social evaluation makes public speaking so nerve wracking.

Giving a presentation to a room-full of people or just voicing your opinion in a meeting can be a nerve-wracking experience. Even if you are prepared, have made notes, or practiced your introduction, once you are on the spot, it’s pretty easy to get unnerved. Why does it happen, even if it is just once in a while? So much has been written about how to give an effective presentation. Sometimes folks who call themselves public-speaking experts tell us to think about every word; others say to try and make our minds blank. What is the right strategy?

For almost 20 years, researchers around the world have been inviting people into their laboratories for the sadistic purpose of stressing them out by asking them to prepare a speech that they will have to give in front of others. The goal is to figure out what makes these situations so stressful and why some people thrive when all eyes are on them while others can barely make it to the podium. Researchers put people through what is called the Trier Social Stress Test (named after Trier University in Germany where it was developed).

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The test goes something like this:

Upon arrival at a research lab, participants are led into a room occupied by a three-member panel. People are asked to take a seat opposite the panel and told that they have the task of creating a five-minute presentation that will convince the panel that they are the best applicant for an open job in the laboratory. People are told that they will be evaluated on both the content of the speech they create and their presentation style – this means no fidgeting, ums, etc. The person usually has about 10 minutes to prepare the speech. Then, with a video camera focused on them and their every move, the study participant is asked to actually stand up and give the speech to the, often times, less-than-supportive panel seated in front of them. As if that was not enough, immediately after the speech, the person is asked to do another task where he or she counts backwards from 1022 by 13 out loud, as quickly and accurately as possible.

Taking part in the Trier Social Stress Test is, well, stressful. And, almost two decades of research has shown that, for most people, this public speaking activity is a clear, reliable way to elicit a substantial cortisol response, the hormone that is a marker of stress. Yet it’s not simply the act of giving a speech or doing math that induces the stress, the Trier Social Stress Test is so stressful because it includes elements of social evaluation. When people are judging you, and how you perform, you are almost guaranteed to have a stress reaction. Judgmentalism is a mainstay of most public speaking conditions; people are afraid of being evaluated and looking like a fool.

Fortunately, knowing what drives the pressure-filled nature of the Trier Social Stress Test helps to nail down some simple ways to take some of the pressure off in public speaking situations. Simply getting used to the pressure of speaking in front of others (and being judged by them) is a big one. And, the neat thing is that it’s not necessarily practice with the specific speech or pitch you have to give, but practice in general can help. For instance, if you spent time each week making a fool out of yourself, perhaps by taking an acting class or doing improvisation or just giving toasts with your friends or colleagues, this experience can help to you alleviate your fear of speaking out loud. When you know what the worst thing that can happen is, and you have experienced it already, you’re less likely to stress about it.

For more on how to succeed when the stress is on, check out my book Choke.

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Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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