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.




From the Lab: The Power of Rituals

In a recent study at Harvard Business School, reported by BPS Research Digest, participants were asked to engage in an anxiety-inducing task: singing a song in front of a stranger. Before singing the song, some participants were asked to conduct a ritual: they drew a picture of their feelings, sprinkled salt on it, and counted to five before crumpling up the paper and throwing it in the trash.

As silly as this ritual sounds, the participants who engaged in it reported significantly less anxiety about singing and had lower heart rates than those who didn’t. And that’s not all: the ritual made them perform better too!

Interestingly, it didn’t matter what the ritual was—an alternative ritual that involved writing down a sequence of numbers was also effective. What did matter, however, was that is was called a “ritual.” When the ritual was called what it really was, “a few random behaviors,” the effect disappeared.

As the authors of the study conclude, “although some may dismiss rituals as irrational, those who enact rituals may well outperform the skeptics who forgo them.” So whether it’s salting your feelings, writing down numbers, or maybe even a practice that has additional anxiety-reducing effects (like those described in The Science of Speaking), engaging in a ritual before your speech, and explicitly identifying it as such, can be an effective method for overcoming your nerves.

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.

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.

In the News: By Any Other Name

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet


—Juliet, Romeo and Juliet II.ii (William Shakespeare)

Or would it? In a recent post on Science of Us, Melissa Dahl wrote about a recent column in The Guardian by Oliver Burkeman, who cited comments by Paul Silvia on writer’s block. Complex chain of citation notwithstanding, the idea being discussed is quite interesting. Here it is, in the words of Dahl:

“Naming something gives it object power,” Burkeman quotes Silvia as saying. “People can overthink themselves into deep dark corners, and writer’s block is a good example.” It’s best, then, if you don’t dwell on or “diagnose” yourself with the problem; instead of calling it “writer’s block,” call it what it is, or rather, what it isn’t — “not writing.”

The same thing, I think, can be true of “stage fright,” “speech anxiety,” or “glossophobia.” It’s possible that by giving our (perfectly normal) feelings these scary sounding names, we’re giving them more power over us than they deserve. If we simply describe how we’re feeling, i.e., “a bit jittery before giving my speech,” we may be able to take away some of the power of our fear and more easily find ways to overcome it.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that the opposite could be true. Others have suggested that you can actually take away the power of your fears by naming them. In fact, there’s a whole genre of literature based on this concept, that when you know the true name of something, you can take away its power.

In The Science of Speaking, I explore yet another option: that perhaps we should give our feelings a positive name, such as “stage excitement” or “stage enthusiasm,” which explain the symptoms in a more inspiring way.

In the end, it really depends on what works best for you. If naming your fear is making you feel worse, by all means, call it something less serious. But if naming your fear makes you feel better, by all means, go ahead and name it. And if what works best for you is to give it a different name, then that’s the strategy that you should employ.

To bring it back to Juliet’s question, there’s probably something more to a name than she claims—but what really matters in the end is that we should call the rose by the name that makes it smell the sweetest.

In the News: The Power of Self-Doubt

In The Science of Speaking, I present many different tools for feeling more confident about your speaking. But I also note that there can be benefits to feeling nervous: in particular, that it can help you avoid overconfidence. As Gregg Allman of The Allman Brothers Band said, “If I went out there thinkin’, ‘Eh, we’ll go slaughter ’em,’ he says, ‘I’m positive something would go seriously wrong.'”

In a recent post on The Mission, Ravi Raman expanded on this idea, writing about the power of self-doubt. The whole article is worth a read, but here’s a particularly relevant excerpt:

Have you ever noticed that when you doubt yourself, you automatically think of all the little things you need to do to accomplish your goal? You become cautious and careful. Doubt promotes a run-down of your mental checklist to ensure that everything is taken care of. It produces a greater sense of caring about what you are doing and the skills you can apply to get the job done.


Self-doubt is a necessary part of personal growth and achievement. Without it, we would make all sorts of unforced errors in the pursuit of our goals. We would parade around supremely confident, but lacking humility and the personal growth that comes from self-awareness. The choice we have, however, is to approach the barrier of self-doubt as an opportunity for learning, reflection, and improvement; and not as a dream killer.

While it’s important to find ways to overcome paralyzing self-doubt (the kind that causes us to abandon our dreams), I like this idea that a reasonable amount of self-doubt can actually be critical for successfully achieving them.

From the Lab: Affirming Your Values

In a 2005 study by J. David Creswell, et al., they tested a new approach for reducing speech anxiety. Specifically, before giving a speech, they asked participants to reflect on a value that resonated with them. After reflecting on this value, the core-value-affirming participants were significantly lesser stressed than control participants, who had reflected on a value that wasn’t particularly important to them. (Although speech anxiety is what’s relevant here, a followup study found that this technique also worked for students preparing for a stressful exam—even when the value-affirmation occurred two weeks before the exam! Other studies have found that self-affirmation can improve our problem-solving abilities and increase our sense of meaning in life.)

Writing about these studies in Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, Amy Cuddy notes that what’s surprising here is that “the participants affirmed their personal core values—not values or abilities that were relevant to the stressful tasks at hand. People didn’t need to convince themselves that they were good public speakers in order to be confident about giving a speech; they just needed to have shored up an important part of their best selves—such as ‘I value being creative and making art.'”

Before you give your next speech (or engage in any stressful task), these studies suggest that it will pay to take a moment to reflect on the values you most believe in, reaffirming your best self. By doing so, you’ll be even more likely to become it.

From the Lab: Hug Your Spouse (Updated)

Yesterday, we saw that receiving social support from a friend can be an effective way to reduce speech anxiety. Today, we’ll look at another strategy that can be even more effective.

Today’s strategy comes from a 2007 study in Psychoneuroendocrinology. Like yesterday’s study, it was based on the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), which includes preparing and delivering a 5 minute speech in which you pitch yourself as the best candidate for a job.

This study included one control group and two experimental groups. In the experimental group, participants (all of whom were married or cohabiting females) were asked to bring their partners (all male) with them. During the preparation period, their partners were told to give the participants support in one of two ways. One group was told to give the participants verbal social support, as in yesterday’s study. The other was told to give the participants physical social support in the form of a standardized shoulder massage.

Interestingly, in this study, verbal social support provided no benefit, a finding which the authors note is consistent with previous studies “indicating reduced responsiveness to verbal social support by a spouse in women.”* The shoulder massage, however, helped quite a bit, suggesting that physical social support can also be effective in reducing speech anxiety—perhaps even more effective! Whether it’s a shoulder massage, or even just a hug, receiving comforting touch from a loved one can make the task of speaking significantly less stressful.

* What should we take away from this finding? That it’s useless for husbands to verbally support their wives? Certainly not. Instead, what I’d take away from this is that everyone has different strategies that work for them. For some people, talking to a friend or their spouse will help a lot—for others, it won’t help at all. Or to reference another strategy from The Science of Speaking, some people think that power posing is ridiculous, while others maintain that it has completely changed their lives. As always, The Science of Speaking is a toolbox: pick the tools that work best for you.

Updated (4/25/17): A 2016 study found a similar effect in daughters who held hands with their mothers.

From the Lab: Phone a Friend

In The Science of Speaking, I present many different strategies for managing nervousness. Today and tomorrow, we’ll explore two more.

Today’s strategy comes from a 2003 study in Biological Psychiatry. Like many other studies related to speech anxiety, it was based on the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), which includes preparing and delivering a 5 minute speech in which you pitch yourself as the best candidate for a job.

One group of participants (all of whom were male) was asked to bring their best friend (male or female) with them, while another group was asked to come alone. During the preparation period, the friends were asked to give the participants social support. They were told to “offer both instrumental and emotional support.” Given that “they would know best what kind of supportive behaviors would fit the individual coping preferences of the subject,” they were simply encouraged to “be as helpful as possible during the 10-min preparation for the speech task.”

While all of the participants were stressed by giving a speech, the socially supported participants were significantly less stressed. This suggests that another good way you can decrease your speech anxiety is to lean on your friends for social support, asking them to help in whatever way will help you. This could be listening to your speech and providing feedback, or listening to you talk about your nerves and telling you its all going to be okay. Regardless of the exact kind of help provided, social support can be another great way for you to feel less nervous about your speech.