For many people, public speaking is one of their greatest fears.
What is it that makes public speaking as terrifying as death in some people’s minds? Sian Beilock, PhD, is a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, and one of the world’s leading experts on the brain science behind “choking under pressure.”
In April 2012, she published an article in Psychology Today called “The Fear of Public Speaking,” asserting that it’s the threat of social evaluation that makes public speaking so nerve-racking.
The research described is based on the Trier Social Stress Test, where each study contributor enters a room, faces a three-member panel, and is asked to create a five-minute presentation. The goal is to convince the panel that he or she is the right candidate for a position in their laboratory.
They have ten minutes to prepare, and are told that their evaluation is based on content and presentation style.
With the video cameras rolling, each person stands and delivers. To add more stress, when the speech is over, they are then asked to count backward from 1,022 by 13 out loud as quickly and accurately as possible.
What’s getting you stressed out: social scruinty
Beilock cites her research to underscore that public speaking is a “clear and reliable way” to elicit a stressful response.
But it’s not only the act of giving a speech that causes the tension. The Trier Social Stress Test triggers anxiety because it includes elements of social evaluation. In other words, when people are judging you and your performance, you are afraid of being evaluated on the chance you may look foolish, because who wants to look like a fool?
No one. But …
Make a fool of yourself more often
Beilock’s suggestion is to condition yourself to lessen the pressure that comes with public speaking.
She concludes that if you spend a little time each week making a fool of yourself in some way, those experiences will help diminish the ear when you are ready to deliver. She recommends everyone take an acting or improvisation class.
I couldn’t agree more. With most of my clients and students I teach principles from a book called YES, AND: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration. Based on lessons from the Second City, an improvisational theater group, this idea is not just about developing comedic skills.
You become conditioned to think and respond quickly on your feet.
It helps you learn how to overcome the fear of public speaking in a nonthreatening and nonjudgmental way.
Beilock’s research emphasizes that when you have already experienced the worst thing that can happen, you’re less likely to stress out about it with each successive attempt. Eventually, you’ll be so accustomed to scripted and spontaneous communication that your reduced anxiety will translate into a more confident public speaker.
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