Reading an Inoculation Message against a fear of public speaking.

Inoculation against a fear of public speaking

Can reading a simple message about speaking anxiety reduce fear and cause you to interpret that fear differently?

Research published recently in Plos One suggests that it can. Researchers from the University of Western Australia tested whether a specially crafted message was be effective in reducing public speaking anxiety in students. Based in ‘inoculation theory,’ the message they crafted was able to reframe some of the typical fear inducing thoughts. Students receiving the inoculation message reported less stress and more positive view.

the Message

The message students read was composed of very typical public speaking ‘advice’ that you find in books and on most blogs on the topic. What makes the message different is how it is presented.  This presentation is crafted specially to inoculate you against fears.

It is based on something called ‘inoculation theory’ from Psychology, a method used to help people deal with fears. While it has seen some success with other, clinical fears, it’s not been applied to public speaking before. The authors adapted the typical concept to make it applicable for public speaking anxiety and for people with a ‘normal’ fear of public speaking.

The basic concept is this:

First, you are made explicitly aware that what you will do may cause you anxiety, e.g. Many people find speaking in front of audience to be a stressful activity and experience fear reactions before and during the their speech.

Then you are confronted with typical worries associated with that fear, e.g. You may worry that the audience will laugh at you.

Each of these worries is followed up by refuting points, e.g. It is very rare that an audience will laugh at the person presenting. Even if things do go bad, audience members are more likely to sympathize with you, as they either fear speaking also or have had similar experiences themselves.

the study

The study tested their idea with 230 students across two school years. The students either read the sheet with the inoculation message or a simple informative sheet about having to present. They received the sheet two weeks before their presentation and instructed to read the message. Three days prior to their presentation, they were sent the same message again electronically.

The study compared different aspects of public speaking anxiety between the groups. The results showed three improvements for those who read the inoculation message when compared to the informative sheet.

  • they reported lower levels of anxiety before they spoke
  • they reported that they experienced less ‘somatic anxiety’ during the presentation. Somatic anxiety is the physiological manifestations of your fear in yourself, e.g. sweating, dry mouth, trembling voice.
  • they also reported that the message they got changed they way they thought about their fears


The results of the study are positive, but they are limited. The method definitely provided the students with a lessening of their anxiety. However, only some aspects of their anxiety and while it was statistically significant, students weren’t suddenly cured of all fear. It was a fairly small change.  Also other aspects of public speaking fear, like the ‘cognitive anxiety’ component, weren’t effected.

What makes this research exciting though is that the method is so simple and easily and universally usable. You just read a couple paragraphs of text. No special or intensive training. It is even information that is widely known. The genius of it is that by changing the presentation of the information, our brains make better use of that information. You reframe your fears and, thereby, lowers your anxiety a bit.

Example Inoculation message

Want to try it? Here is the inoculation message they used, changed slightly to remove the classroom specifics.

Data indicates that many people become nervous prior to and during their presentation. As a consequence, we wanted to do something to help you manage your worries. Below (in bold) are some common negative thoughts that people have about presentations and public speaking. Following each of these negative thoughts, we’ve provided some material that describes why each negative thought actually has little foundation.

Everyone will see that I’m nervous”

  • This is a common concern, and researchers call it the illusion of transparency. Scientific evidence has proven that it is misguided to think that everyone can pick up on your nerves or anxiety.

  • Research has consistently shown that audience members are much less likely to perceive public speakers’ internal states (e.g., nervousness) than what the speakers think.

  • No matter what you think, any intense feelings you might be experiencing (such as nerves) are displayed too subtly to be detected by others.

  • Your nerves, if you have them, are not likely to be picked up by audience members – whether in this presentation, or in future talks you might give.

Everyone is judging me and my appearance during my talk”

  • This is another common thought, and researchers call it the spotlight effect. A lot of research indicates that people overestimate the extent to which others are actually attending to, and judging, their external appearance.

  • This means that other people are not judging you and your appearance to the extent that you think they are.

  • All of the audience members will present themselves at some point, and they are watching your presentation to learn about your topic; they’re not here with the goal of judging you.

I’m not going to do well in my speech because I’m nervous”

  • Researchers at some of the world’s best universities – including Yale and Harvard – have shown that the effects of stress and anxiety are largely dependent on how the symptoms are interpreted.

  • For instance, anxiety and excitement share very similar physical symptoms; what seems to be important is how you choose to interpret the symptoms. What this means is that anxiety, if you experience it, is not necessarily a bad thing at all, and might even help you feel ‘switched on’ and ready.

  • The correlation between anxiety and speech performance among presenters tends to be a very small. That means the people who were highly nervous didn’t do any worse in their presentation. Even if you feel anxious about your presentation, you don’t need to think of this as a threat to how well you’ll perform.

Founder/CEO at Virtual Orator

Dr. Blom is a long time researcher in the VR field. He is the founder of Virtual Human Technologies, which applies VR and avatar technologies to human problems and helping better understand people. Virtual Orator exists largely because Dr. Blom wishes he had had such a tool instead of the ‘trail by fire’ he went through learning to speak in public.


One response to “Inoculation against a fear of public speaking”

  1. It is evident that no one has a perfect speaking skills in front of crowd. It is fascinating that inoculation theory can be applied to reducing anxiety during public speaking. However, it’s just dreadful that it does not “eliminate” all of the anxiety 🙁

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