If you get nervous about public speaking, you’ve probably had people tell you things like: “A little bit of nervousness is good for you” or “Just take a deep breath and try to calm down.” But how accurate is that advice? Let’s take a look at the science behind presentation anxiety and see how some recent studies are giving us new strategies to fight our fear of public speaking.
Some Nerves Can Be Good
It’s true. Those nerves we feel before a big presentation can actually help us if we can regulate them. Content strategist and writer Jory Mackay explains it this way: “When our brains feel stressed, they release a chemical called noradrenaline. Noradrenaline is one of these strange chemicals that is both amazing for us, and terrible … We don’t function too well with too much or too little of this chemical.” Which brings us to something called the Yerkes-Dodson Law. It looks like this:
This law, created in 1908 by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, noted that there is a correlation between stress level and performance. Their research established that small levels of stress worked to increase performance up until a point at which the stress became excessive, decreasing performance. If you start to feel like good stress is turning into bad stress, keep the next two studies in mind.
Don’t Suppress Nerves
When we are anxious, our body reacts with stress responses. It’s natural and nearly unavoidable. But don’t let that scare you. In a study where researchers asked public speakers to either suppress, accept, or reappraise their nervousness, the group who was asked to suppress their anxiety actually had the highest heart rates—the most stress!
So trying to eliminate or ignore presentation anxiety is not only impossible, it might actually backfire and make you more nervous. So what should you do instead of suppressing your nerves?
A recent study found that telling someone to calm down when he is facing presentation anxiety, or any form of stress for that matter, might not be the best tactic, either. In her research about how we react to stress, Alison Wood Brooks, assistant professor at Harvard Business School, found that people who were able to reframe their anxiety as excitement performed better than those who simply tried to exchange it for calmness. She tested 140 speakers who prepared short presentations and randomly assigned them to say either “I am calm” or “I am excited” before presenting. The speakers who said they were excited performed better in all areas of evaluation: persuasion, competence, confidence, and persistence. Here’s how she suggests reappraising or reframing anxiety into excitement.
“Individuals can reappraise anxiety as excitement using minimal strategies such as self-talk (e.g., saying “I am excited” out loud) or simple messages (e.g., “get excited”), which lead them to feel more excited, adopt an opportunity mind-set (as opposed to a threat mind-set), and improve their subsequent performance.”
These studies teach us that reframing our nerves into regulated excitement might be the most effective way to deal with presentation anxiety while also enhancing our performance. The next time you speak, instead of trying to fight your nerves by suppressing them, reframe them as natural, helpful, and exciting.
Do you enjoy theories and tactics that are backed by science? So do we. Check out our online presentation skills course, where you’ll learn the proven formulas used by the best in the world to get results every time you speak.