Two images are seen with text above them saying: You Choose. The left image is of a bed of coals prepared for fire walking, a trial by fire. The right image is a businessman in VR goggles speaking to a virtual audience, a Trial by VR.

Trial by Fire or Trial by VR: You Choose

When we can no longer avoid public speaking, most of us are forced into the trial by fire method of learning the craft of public speaking.  We go into a high stress situation, often with high (perceived) stakes. It becomes a test of our public speaking ability, with the potential to leave some scars or at least singe us. The trial by fire experience frequently leads to further avoidance of all things public speaking, until again we are forced into it. This creates a cycle, which is the trial by fire method of learning.

Not a fan of the trial by fire method?

The trial by fire method is not optimal. It is not particularly fun. Its not efficient and usually takes a long time. It could even damage your career. However, it can lead to proficient public speaking; with some thick skin and dedication to getting better, it can become a cycle of ever improving skills. After time, we break out of the cycle;  speaking engagements are no longer trials, just public speaking. Many people have managed it, including myself. Still, there are better ways to learn.

Transforming the trials

If you have a fear of public speaking, and 70% of all people reportedly do, you likely avoid it like the plague. You’ve landed on this post, which means you’re not 100% certain you can avoid public speaking for the rest of your life.

Learning public speaking is going to be a bit of a trial. There isn’t really a way around that. Public speaking is a craft, composed of numerous skills that require practice to attain. Likewise, realistic practice is the key to conquering your fears. That means you have to speak in public to get good at public speaking.

The only way not to end up in the trial by fire cycle of public speaking learning is to be proactive.

Avoiding public speaking until you have to speak will always lead to a trial by fire. If you choose to address public speaking skills and fear on your own terms, you can create better conditions.

If you are reading this and find yourself at the start of the cycle or somewhere in it, don’t despair. You can still create better conditions and get yourself out of the cycle quicker and less painfully.

The stakes

The traditional way to minimize the fire in ‘trial by fire’ is to gain experience in situations that have lower stakes. What are the stakes? Only rarely are there physical stakes. Fearful people imagine being pelted with rotten tomatoes, but this is about as likely as getting bitten by a shark and hit by lightning at the same time. The main stakes are psychological. They are social in nature and most of it is actually our own build-up of the situation, way beyond reality.

The main stakes center around social rejection. Many of us imagine people laughing at us during the talk. More objectively, it is a fear of being judged negatively because of a poor performance. We imagine catastrophic things like loosing friends, having colleagues laugh behind our backs, or even hurting our careers. Of course, this thinking leads to more fear and make success more difficult.

There may be other, more direct stakes. The situation itself might be of importance, e.g. the big sales pitch. This is the classic thing that happens to Engineers, developers, researchers, entrepreneurs, etc. One day they are forced into presenting, because they are competent in some other way. The first trial by fire happens.

Changing The stakes

We lower the stakes by finding opportunities to speak in front of people, but in a more controlled setting. Traditionally this has meant seeking out other public speaking opportunities, where the potential social impact on us is smaller and there aren’t direct impacts, like lost sales. These are usually opportunities away from work; the presence of colleagues is the root of many social stresses.

Service and social groups, like Kiwanis, Lions Club, Rotary, and the Foreign Legion, are often looking for speakers. The other option is to join a public speaking group. The audience is generally supportive and the structure helps. The focus on skills can benefit too. Sometimes speaking group audiences are a little too attentive and supportive, so exploring both options is good because you’ll experience more ‘realistic’ audience behavior at social groups.

The other advantage you want is more control over the topic. Select topics you know well. Being an expert will help with confidence. Select topics that you can get excited about. That excitement will carry over into your speech. It will also help your motivation in preparing your speech.

Virtual Stakes

Today we can go further and make the stakes virtual. Virtual reality makes this possible. While presenting, we experience being in front of an audience, but they exist only as created by a computer. Because the audience is virtual, the long term social impacts that we fear so much can’t happen. The virtual audience members won’t think less of us or laugh behind our backs. As soon as we end the session, they cease to exist. This is the power of VR and what makes it wonderful for treating fears.

Each speech is still a trial. The experience of the audience is quite real. Research shows virtual audiences induce stress responses in people similar to real audiences. It is a trial by virtual fire.

There are more advantages to going virtual. Want to give the same speech again? In an application like Virtual Orator, its just a matter of starting the program again. A fresh audience at a button click. The audience is also available when you need it. This means you control the cycle. This is a big advantage as getting speaking opportunities in the real world can take a long time. In this way you can grow quicker and more efficiently.

Practicing specific public speaking skills is difficult in many real situations, because mistakes may have negative impact. Most of the time the audience isn’t aware of the mistakes, but they impact us personally. Mistakes may trip you up or derail you completely. Practicing skills may also distract you from delivering a good speech, if you are too concentrated on that particular component. With a virtual audience stakes are completely gone, meaning we can freely practice skills. We can make mistakes, restart, and practice again as needed.

Trial by VR

The unfortunate way many of us end up learning public speaking is a cycle of trials by fire, where each experience is stressful and high stakes. This method of learning is less that optimal, but it can be transformed to lessen the stress and lower the stakes. Being proactive, reflective, and persistent we can create a more optimal cycle.

With VR technology and a program like Virtual Orator, we can take this further, by making the stakes virtual. We still get experiences of speaking that we need to conquer fear and gain skills, but our learning is characterized by success rather than social worries. We get a more optimal cycle of trials, a trial by VR.

Ready to start your first Trial by VR?

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.


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