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.

From the Lab: Shifting the Spotlight

As I note in the nervousness chapter of The Science of Speaking, speakers are usually much more critical of themselves than their audiences are. As Amy Cuddy notes in Presence, this is partly due to the spotlight effect, “one of the most enduring and widespread egocentric human biases—to feel that people are paying more attention to us than they actually are … and usually in a bad way, not a good way.”

As a demonstration of the spotlight effect, she cites a study by Thomas Gilovich, Victoria Medvec, and Kenneth Savitsky in which participants were asked to wear a potentially embarrassing t-shirt, then estimate how many of their classmates had noticed it. While fewer than 25% of their classmates actually noticed, the participants believed that almost 50% had. In another experiment, less than 10% of their classmates noticed their attire, while again, participants believed that nearly 50% had. In an experiment in which participants were asked how their classmates would rate their performance in a discussion, participants believed that their performance stood out much more than it actually did (in both a positive and negative direction).

Obviously, the spotlight effect can be a major contributor to speech anxiety. And in fact, a variety of studies have confirmed that the more self-focused we are, the more anxiety (and other negative emotions) we feel. So what can we do to overcome it?

First, as I have advised before, realize that the spotlight effect exists and that you are going to be much more critical of yourself than your audience will be. Don’t worry so much about what they think of you because they’re not thinking about you as much as you think. (They mostly have their own spotlights on themselves.)

Of course, I realize that this advice not to worry is really no help at all. As I’ve also noted in the past, it’s much more difficult to not do something (i.e., to stop using filler words), than it is to do something else instead (i.e., to take a deep breath instead of saying “umm”). So what is something you can do instead?

One good way to overcome the spotlight effect is to consciously shift the spotlight off of yourself and onto something else—for example, to focus on why you’re giving the speech or what you want the audience to take away from it. As the research on self-focus have shown, when you shift the heat of spotlight off yourself, you’ll begin to feel much better.