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