Anxiety and public speaking: new research

The most effective longterm way to overcome public speaking anxiety is to use a proven method such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

But what if you’ve just had a bad public speaking experience which has caused your anxiety to rocket upwards? New research suggests that getting back in front of a group as soon as possible will help reduce the damage.

In the experiment, people received an electric shock every time a blue square appeared on a computer screen. Unsurprisingly, they showed anxiety (skin sensors measured their sweatiness) every time the blue square appeared. In psychological terms they had a learnt fear.

The next day they were reminded of that anxiety by seeing the blue square again (‘the reminder’). Then they were divided into three groups:

  • Group 1 were shown the blue square repeatedly without getting a shock 10 minutes after the reminder
  • Group 2 were shown the blue square repeatedly without getting a shock 6 hours after the reminder
  • Group 3 weren’t shown the blue square again.

The results

The day after that each group was again exposed to the blue square. Only Group 1 showed no anxiety. A year later, a subset of the participants were tested again, with the same results.

So people were able to “rewrite” their memories but only if they did so within 10 minutes of being reminded of the bad memory.

The application to public speaking and anxiety

The write up of this research in BPS Research Digest suggests that you could apply this if you have had a bad presentation experience that causes you to fear public speaking. They suggest you gather together some supportive friends, internally recall your nightmare presentation experience, then immediately start presenting to your nodding, smiling and encouraging audience.

I suggest joining Toastmasters. A club gives you a safe and supportive environment where you can start to diminish the anxiety caused by your bad public speaking experience.

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