Anxiety and public speaking: new research

by Olivia Mitchell

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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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris December 11, 2009 at 11:31 am

This shows the wisdom of the old saw that if you were thrown by a horse, you should get right back up. I can attest that fear diminishes greatly when one has done enough speaking to have flopped, survived, and succeeded again.


Olivia Mitchell December 11, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Good point – I’m a horse rider and I hadn’t even thought of that!


Jessica December 12, 2009 at 6:32 am

The ‘get back on the horse’ theory was the first thing I thought of when I read this post! As a child, I experienced first hand just how important that advice is, but had never thought of applying it to the world of public speaking. Very interesting!


Beth Bridges January 26, 2010 at 7:01 am

A Toastmasters Club is a guaranteed place to find a friendly and helpful audience.


Olivia Mitchell January 26, 2010 at 8:24 am

Hi Beth, I agree, Toastmasters is a great place to learn confidence, Olivia


Benjamin Ball March 5, 2010 at 9:14 am

The other trick I use with clients is to get them to think they are educating the audience rather than presenting to it. This mind set change results in much calmer focused presenters.


Fred E. Miller March 26, 2010 at 11:17 pm

Good points here, Olivia.

Some people bomb, and immediately give up.

It’s one event, but they take it too personally.

An analogy might be baseball. The best ever hitters still never get to first base over 50% of the time!

Get up, dust yourself off, and do it, again!


Brian Clough April 19, 2010 at 4:53 pm

Hi Olivia,

Interesting isn’t it.

A couple of points about applying this research to public speaking.

1. In my 30 years of speaking I can’t think of a single time when I could have gathered together such a nice nodding, smiling audience straight after a ‘bombed’ performance. I just don’t think it’s practical in the real world. The good news is, I don’t think it’s necessary either.

2. The reality is most of us got ‘zapped with the blue square’ years ago! In other words our learned ‘fear’ of public speaking is well and truly in place. It’s too late for most people.

3. My practical experience and my research shows it’s far better and more practical to do 3 things. Unless all 3 are done I think people can only minimize the fear at best, never actually get fully past it. The 3 things are:
a. Understand the ‘fear’. For example understand they’re not afraid of public speaking at all. They’re just afraid.
b. Love public speaking. If you say you ‘hate’ speaking in public, all that means is you’re scared. Men in particular find it much easier to say they ‘hate’ something, rather than ‘I’m afraid’. In this case ‘love’ is a verb. You either dcide to love it or fear it – your call.
c. Practice public speaking. I agree Toastmasters is great. I’m about to start a Year as President of my Club and I can’t wait! On my website there’s a section where people can use the internet to get as much practice as they like.

The whole site is dedicated to helping people get past the ridiculous herd notion that everyone’s afraid of public speaking (and other stupid myths).

No Fear Public Speaking


Olivia Mitchell April 19, 2010 at 6:44 pm

Hi Brian
I agree with some of your comments and disagree with others. But I’ve had a quick look at your website and I agree with your general approach (it’s what you think that causes you to be nervous). I think trying to encapsulate your approach in three points has made it a little too concise for clarity.


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