Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Speaking Science: How to reframe your speaker stress

It's no secret that many people find public speaking stressful, and even the speaker who describes herself as calm can find herself puzzlingly short of breath right before stepping to the lectern. But what if there were a different way to look at speaker stress?

University of Rochester psychologist Jeremy Jamieson and his colleagues recently tested whether "reframing" the stress that people feel during public speaking would help them feel less anxious during the task. In their study, published earlier this month in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, they asked 73 women and men to deliver a five-minute speech about themselves--with only three minutes to prepare. They then told half of the group that the stress they were feeling about the task was beneficial, rather than harmful. They even gave them a few scientific articles to read before speaking, which backed up the notion that stress is the body's way of ensuring success under difficult conditions.

"It seems like people just never take the time to consider that stress could be good," Jamieson said, explaining the reframing process. "So when they experience a sign of arousal like a racing heart or sweaty palms, they interpret this as negative."

The study participants then delivered their speeches in front of two research assistants--and oh boy, was it a tough crowd. The researchers had instructed the assistants to "respond negatively" during the speeches, scowling and tapping their clipboards and generally giving the impression that they had better places to be. On top of that, the participants were then asked to count backward by sevens, starting at 996. If they messed up, they got a stern warning from the assistants to start the counting again.

Jamieson's team discovered that the speakers who had been taught to reframe their stress as a good thing were more likely than the other speakers to say that they felt they had the resources to cope with the difficult experience. They were also less likely to notice negative feedback like yawning and that irritated tapping by the research assistants. Physiologically, the reframed group fared better as well: their stress-challenged hearts beat more efficiently.

Jamieson said it's not clear yet how long these effects last, although he is eager to test longer-term reframing as therapy for people with social anxiety disorder. He also says that anyone can try reframing their stress in this way, before a speech or another high-anxiety event.

"The reappraisal techniques we used in the study could very easily be done alone," he said. "Really, the core of what we do is change people's mindsets about what stress is. Rather than viewing stress as a unilaterally negative experience, we point out that stress responses have evolved for specific reasons and that they actually can help us perform better in stressful situations."

Jamieson talks more about the technique in this video produced by the University of Rochester. Is this something you might try before your next speech?

(Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this post.)
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