From the Lab: The Nerve Curve

In The Science of Speaking, I note that everyone gets nervous about speaking in public. But there are several other more subtle considerations that I didn’t quite get around to addressing in the book. For example, how nervous does everyone get, and when?

As it turns out, studies have shown that a speaker’s level of anxiety changes over time, with different levels of nervousness occurring at different stages in the speech-making process. This leads me to wonder what a chart of nervousness vs. time would look like. In other words, can we plot a “nerve curve”?

Thanks to data from Ralph Behnke and his colleagues, we can. In two studies, they measured the anxiety levels at six different stages in the speaking process. Here’s a plot of the data they collected.

Nervousness starts when you find out that you need to give a speech (labeled “Assignment” above). From there, it decreases slightly as you prepare your speech (“Preparation”). But as the speech approaches, nervousness increases again (“Anticipation”), up to the moment when you begin your speech, when nervousness is at an all-time high (“Introduction”).

As you continue speaking, however, nervousness begins to fade, steadily decreasing from the beginning of your speech to the end (“Conclusion”). After your speech is finally over, nervousness falls to an all-time low (“Completion”).

There are several important lessons we can take from this curve.

First, the beginning of your speech is the worst part—once you get past that, it’s all downhill from there. This suggests that one good way of managing nervousness is to really prepare your introduction, totally nailing your hook, thesis, and preview. Once you get through those initial elements, you’ll already be feeling much better.

Second, the closer to the beginning of your speech you get, the more nervous you are going to feel, so the closer to the beginning of your speech you can practice the techniques you learned for managing nervousness in The Science of Speaking, the better.

Third, though it often doesn’t feel this way to the speaker—who often feels like only they suffer from nervousness—it really is a universal phenomenon, well-defined enough that we plot a curve of it. And while this may not make all of your nervousness go away, perhaps it will help a little bit to know we’re all in this together.

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