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This Simple Technique Reduces the Stress of Public Speaking

Remembering that humans need to connect.

Henri Mathieu-Saint-Laurent/Pexels
Source: Henri Mathieu-Saint-Laurent/Pexels

An old saying has it that a ‘problem shared is a problem halved.' It’s a nice thought: Unload your burdens on someone else, and your load will be lighter. But is it true, in any scientific sense? And what about the other person? Do they go away more stressed than before? Is your gain their loss? I recently ran across a study from a few years back that beautifully tests the truth of this sentiment – and discovered something important for public speakers, or indeed anyone finding themselves in stressful situations.

The study found that if you held the hand of someone you were emotionally close to – or even were simply close to them in space, though the effect was weaker (and your relationship had to be stronger) – your stress was lessened. This is real evidence, it turns out, that humans were made to be connected to one another. The notion behind this phenomenon is known as Social Baseline theory, and it postulates that we evolved to be physically close to other humans.

Imagine, then, how difficult the pandemic has been for so many. During its height, my mother passed away, and I was not allowed to be with her during her final hours; not until she had actually passed was I allowed to sit and mourn with the body. I understand why the hospital had to limit my access to her, but, as the research shows, it would have been much better for her if I had been able to hold her hand. I’m relating this not to claim special suffering but just to note that this kind of limitation, which has been so common for health reasons over the past two years of the pandemic, is precisely wrong for the people involved.

Setting that painful memory aside, this research finding has broad application in many other areas of potential stress, such as public speaking. For a long time, I’ve recommended that, as a final step in the introduction of a speaker, the introducer should shake the speaker’s hand, or hug them, as appropriate. That simple human touch helps ground the speaker and get him or her off to a good start.

The good news is that touch doesn’t convey or channel the stress to the receiving person. Instead, the speaker feels better, and the introducer doesn’t feel worse. It’s all good.

One of the effects of adrenaline, experienced by at least a third of speakers, is an out-of-body sensation that is variously described as not being able to remember what you said, or feeling like you weren’t present, or even not being able to hear yourself speak clearly, as if you were at a distance from yourself. Each of these effects may be mitigated by human touch or closeness before speaking.

Humans evolved to be connected to one another, and propinquity or even touch are simple ways for you to stay connected to the rest of humanity. Our opportunities for this kind of connection have been limited by the pandemic, especially for those who live alone. There is no better reason for a return to face-to-face work and gatherings – as soon as we safely can – than this basic one of human connection. It reduces stress, and more than that, it is what we were designed to do.