From the Lab: Play Games on Your Smartphone

After a disaster, play games on your smartphone.

That’s the takeaway from a recent study as summarized by Art Markman in Psychology Today.

In the study, researchers tracked cell phone use following a major earthquake in China in 2013. What they found was that while everyone felt a similar level of threat shortly after the event, those who spent more time using “hedonic” (i.e., pleasurable) apps on their smartphone—like games and music players—recovered more quickly than those who used them less.

While some may dismiss this strategy as simply “numbing the pain,” sometimes that’s exactly what people in pain need. And while the experience of public speaking is nowhere near that of surviving a natural disaster, it’s likely that the same recovery strategy will work. Therefore, if you find yourself feeling particularly stressed after a communication “disaster,” it may be beneficial to pull out your smartphone and play some games or listen to music until you calm down enough to debrief it more rationally.

From the Lab: The Power of Gum

In a 2016 article at the Science of People, Vanessa Van Edwards reviews the benefits of chewing gum. As she reports, chewing gum can make you more alert, resulting in improved reaction times, improved productivity, and better cognitive performance on a test (but only when gum is chewed before—not during—the test). (Other studies have also shown negative effects on memory while chewing.) Chewing gum can also improve mood and reduce stress.

While it’s certainly not a good idea to chew gum while you speak, this research suggests that if it’s something you like to do, it may be good to do it before you speak (ideally in the 15-20 minutes before your speech, as that’s how long the cognitive benefits last), simultaneously making you more alert and ready to perform, while improving your mood and reducing stress.

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.