From the Lab: The Button

In The Science of Speaking, I give you many different techniques for managing your nerves. And when you put them to use, each of these techniques can be quite effective. But what if, in addition to these techniques being effective, simply knowing they exist also had an effect?

While this may sound a bit out there, in Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant cite the results of several studies to this effect:

In classic experiments on stress, people performed tasks that required concentration, like solving puzzles, while being blasted at random intervals with uncomfortably loud sounds. They started sweating and their heart rates and blood pressure climbed. They struggled to focus and made mistakes. Many got so frustrated that they gave up. Searching for a way to reduce anxiety, researchers gave some of the participants an escape. If the noise became too unpleasant, they could press a button and make it stop. Sure enough, the button allowed them to stay calmer, make fewer mistakes, and show less irritation. That’s not surprising. But here’s what is: none of the participants actually pressed the button. Stopping the noise didn’t make the difference … knowing they could stop the noise did. The button gave them a sense of control and allowed them to endure the stress.

Based on my own experience, and the experience of my students, I think that it’s quite likely that having a toolbox of strategies for nervousness can—even without using them—help to mitigate nervousness in a similar way. In other words, knowing that you have the power to control your nerves can, by itself, go a long way toward soothing them.

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