Psy­chol­ogy

There are plenty of rea­sons public speak­ing is so scary, but in the end, prac­tice makes per­fect.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Marc Wil­son

There are plenty of rea­sons public speak­ing is so scary,

but in the end, prac­tice makes per­fect.

Ihave to give a speech. It’s not a long one, only five min­utes, but I’m feel­ing a fair amount of per­for­mance anx­i­ety. Given that I lec­ture in front of crowds at a uni­ver­sity, this feels slightly ironic. I know, how­ever, that I’m not alone. Let’s see if sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture can shed some light on why I’m freak­ing out.

Firstly, I’m speak­ing some­where I haven’t spent much time – Par­lia­ment. I’ve spent years telling stu­dents to study un­der con­di­tions sim­i­lar to those in which they’ll be ex­am­ined, so no booming mu­sic and not draped across the bed in their jam­mies.

This has its roots in a fa­mous study on state-de­pen­dent learn­ing – the no­tion that you re­mem­ber ma­te­rial bet­ter if you learn it, and re­call it, in the same con­di­tions. Re­searchers Dun­can God­den and Alan Bad­de­ley asked peo­ple to re­mem­ber lists ei­ther un­der­wa­ter (wear­ing div­ing gear) or out of it, and then re­call those lists ei­ther un­der­wa­ter or out of it. Peo­ple did bet­ter if the learn­ing and re­call con­di­tions were the same. So, note to self, don’t learn my speech un­der­wa­ter.

My au­di­ence? Maybe 100 to 150 peo­ple. Oh, and there will be politi­cians and lu­mi­nar­ies from across the ter­tiary sec­tor in at­ten­dance. I imag­ine one of my bosses will be there. No pres­sure.

Bibb Latané, known for his by­stander-in­ter­ven­tion stud­ies, has also writ­ten about the lev­els of stress ex­pe­ri­enced by a per­son in front of au­di­ences of dif­fer­ent sizes and sta­tuses. In a study, pub­lished in 1976, with fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor Stephen Harkins, Latané had par­tic­i­pants in­di­cate their level of ten­sion while pre­sent­ing a poem to dif­fer­ent au­di­ences. Of course, this was a lab­o­ra­tory ex­per­i­ment, so what they ac­tu­ally did was ask the par­tic­i­pants (first-year psy­chol­ogy stu­dents) to imag­ine how ner­vous they’d be pre­sent­ing a poem to be­tween one and 16 pho­to­graphs of faces of dif­fer­ing ages.

The re­sult was they ex­pe­ri­enced more ten­sion as the au­di­ence grew in size, and were two to three times more ner­vous if the au­di­ence was mid­dle-aged rather than teenaged. In short, nerves were a func­tion of the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween size and sta­tus (rep­re­sented by age in this ex­per­i­ment) so that larger, higher-sta­tus crowds were the most nerve-rack­ing.

In his by­stander­in­ter­ven­tion re­search, Latané iden­ti­fied a “fear of so­cial blun­ders” as part of the rea­son peo­ple may not help some­one in an emer­gency, par­tic­u­larly when it’s not clear if there is an emer­gency. Think about poor Chicken Lit­tle and the so­cial con­se­quences of in­cor­rectly stat­ing, “The sky is fall­ing!” and pre­dict­ing dis­as­ter. This puts me in mind of an­other psy­cho­log­i­cal no­tion dat­ing from the 1970s, at the same time Latané was do­ing his most in­flu­en­tial work on im­pos­tor syn­drome.

In a 2016 Psy­chol­ogy To­day blog, Su­san Wein­schenk dis­closes her own im­pos­tor feel­ings, and quotes Wikipedia to iden­tify Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes as the first to coin the term. She sug­gests that al­most three-quar­ters of us ex­pe­ri­ence th­ese feel­ings that we don’t be­long, that it’s a mis­take for us to be where we are, and that ev­ery­one else is go­ing to work this out any mo­ment now.

Women, ap­par­ently, are more likely to ex­pe­ri­ence a fear of im­pos­ter­ism. She also sug­gests that con­se­quences in­clude ob­sess­ing “about mis­takes, neg­a­tive feed­back and fail­ure”. Th­ese also hap­pen to

Three-quar­ters of us ex­pe­ri­ence feel­ings that we don’t be­long, that it’s a mis­take for us to be where we are.

be some of the in­gre­di­ents of what we re­fer to as neg­a­tive per­fec­tion­ism – per­fec­tion­ism mo­ti­vated by the need to live up to the ex­pec­ta­tions of oth­ers. Per­fec­tion­ism is part of a toxic triad with pro­cras­ti­na­tion and im­pos­tor syn­drome.

Wein­schenk pre­scribes mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion. That’s not bad ad­vice, ex­cept I’m not sure it works as well for men as it does for women. A clas­sic piece of ad­vice for public speak­ing is to imag­ine your au­di­ence naked. It seems to me that this could be quite aver­sive and off-putting. I shall do what I usu­ally do – prac­tise un­til I’ve got it down, and then dis­tract my­self un­til I have to speak. She’ll be right.

Su­san Wein­schenk.

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