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What science says about why public speaking is scary

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There are plenty of reasons public speaking is so scary, but in the end, practice makes perfect. 

have to give a speech. It’s not a long one, only five minutes, but I’m feeling a fair amount of performance anxiety. Given that I lecture in front of crowds at a university, this feels slightly ironic. I know, however, that I’m not alone. Let’s see if scientific literature can shed some light on why I’m freaking out.

Firstly, I’m speaking somewhere I haven’t spent much time – Parliament. I’ve spent years telling students to study under conditions similar to those in which they’ll be examined, so no booming music and not draped across the bed in their jammies. This has its roots in a famous study on state-dependent learning – the notion that you remember material better if you learn it, and recall it, in the same conditions. Researchers Duncan Godden and Alan Baddeley asked people to remember lists either underwater (wearing diving gear) or out of it, and then recall those lists either underwater or out of it. People did better if the learning and recall conditions were the same. So, note to self, don’t learn my speech underwater.

My audience? Maybe 100 to 150 people. Oh, and there will be politicians and luminaries from across the tertiary sector in attendance. I imagine one of my bosses will be there. No pressure.

Bibb Latané, known for his bystander-intervention studies, has also written about the levels of stress experienced by a person in front of audiences of different sizes and statuses. In a study, published in 1976, with frequent collaborator Stephen Harkins, Latané had participants indicate their level of tension while presenting a poem to different audiences. Of course, this was a laboratory experiment, so what they actually did was ask the participants (first-year psychology students) to imagine how nervous they’d be presenting a poem to between one and 16 photographs of faces of differing ages.

The result was they experienced more tension as the audience grew in size, and were two to three times more nervous if the audience was middle-aged rather than teenaged. In short, nerves were a function of the interaction between size and status (represented by age in this experiment) so that larger, higher-status crowds were the most nerve-racking.

Susan Weinschenk.

In his bystander-intervention research, Latané identified a “fear of social blunders” as part of the reason people may not help someone in an emergency, particularly when it’s not clear if there is an emergency. Think about poor Chicken Little and the social consequences of incorrectly stating, “The sky is falling!” and predicting disaster. This puts me in mind of another psychological notion dating from the 1970s, at the same time Latané was doing his most influential work on impostor syndrome.

In a 2016 Psychology Today blog, Susan Weinschenk discloses her own impostor feelings, and quotes Wikipedia to identify Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes as the first to coin the term. She suggests that almost three-quarters of us experience these feelings that we don’t belong, that it’s a mistake for us to be where we are, and that everyone else is going to work this out any moment now.

Women, apparently, are more likely to experience a fear of imposterism. She also suggests that consequences include obsessing “about mistakes, negative feedback and failure”. These also happen to be some of the ingredients of what we refer to as negative perfectionism – perfectionism motivated by the need to live up to the expectations of others. Perfectionism is part of a toxic triad with procrastination and impostor syndrome.

Weinschenk prescribes mindfulness meditation. That’s not bad advice, except I’m not sure it works as well for men as it does for women. A classic piece of advice for public speaking is to imagine your audience naked. It seems to me that this could be quite aversive and off-putting. I shall do what I usually do – practise until I’ve got it down, and then distract myself until I have to speak. She’ll be right.

This article was first published in the September 29, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.