From the Lab: You’ll Probably Like Speaking

Yesterday, we saw that the name we give to our feelings of stage fright can have a major impact on how much they affects us. Today, I want to explore a related concept: that how we expect to feel can strongly influence how we feel.

In a recent study led by Bethany Kwan, subsequently reported by Christian Jarrett and Drake Baer, participants went for a run on a treadmill. Before the run, some participants were told that “most people exercising at this intensity feel good and energised, and then relaxed afterward” while others were told that “most people find this intensity of exercise negative and unpleasant, and then they feel tired afterward.” Control participants were given no expectations.

As Jarrett explains, “participants manipulated to expect the lab run to be more enjoyable showed greater increases in positive feelings through the run compared to the negatively manipulated participants; moreover, compared with control participants, they remembered the run as less fatiguing.”

Translating this into the realm of public speaking, this suggests that perhaps we (as a society, and in particular, as public speaking coaches) should be a bit more careful about how we present stage fright. If we treat it as gospel that public speaking is a terrifying experience, is it possible that we’re unwittingly creating negative expectations that wouldn’t necessarily be there (or at least wouldn’t necessarily be as bad) otherwise? While it would certainly be disingenuous to say that everyone loves public speaking, is it possible that setting more positive expectations would, as in the running study, result in more positive experiences? What might happen if, instead of telling people that they’ll likely (or certainly) be nervous, we tell them that they’ll probably like speaking? While I don’t have the data to answer that question at the moment, it’s something I’ll be thinking about a lot more in the near future.

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