"Singers, actors, musicians, dancers, athletes, even politicians: practically any profession that puts someone on a stage or under a spotlight is filled with people suffering from the telltale signs of performance anxiety, from shaking hands and cold sweats to hurling in the wings," reports the Toronto Star in an article describing singer Adele's ongoing battle with performance anxiety.
She's not alone, as the article makes clear.
Many of us fear public speaking, not just before large groups, but before any group—sometimes even in a conference with only one or two other persons. We become anxious, and our anxiety continues to rise as we approach the presentation floor or conference table. If anxiety rises too high, it will impair our performance, according to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, a principle first posed in 1908 by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson.
The law holds that arousal levels—a term used in psychology to designate the state of being physically and mentally alert—influence performance. Yerkes-Dodson maintains that performance improves as one approaches and then reaches his or her optimal arousal level. But that's the tipping point. Performance declines when arousal passes that optimal level.
Nobody wants to slide down the far side of that tipping point, especially when we're talking about public speaking.
But how do you stay on the right side of the law?
Enter Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. "Individuals," she writes in an article published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General® , "feel anxious often, especially prior to important tasks like speaking publicly or meeting with a boss. When felt immediately before or during a task, anxiety drains working memory capacity, decreases self-confidence, and harms performance." Such a drain darkens the outlook for a successful presentation or meeting, to be sure.
Yet, Brooks notes, an individual in the throes of anxiety who attempts to calm down usually finds that "decreasing anxious feelings is difficult because high arousal is automatic, and suppressing or hiding anxiety is often ineffective." Are we doomed, then, to anxiety-ridden performances? No, she maintains, there's an alternative, one she tested through a series of experiments: reappraise that anxiety as excitement.
As high-arousal states, anxiety and excitement are physiologically similar; both are marked by increases in heart and respiration rates as well as in blood pressure. Anxiety and calmness do not share such similarities. Thus it's easier to reappraise anxiety as excitement than to transform it into calmness. The way to do that, Brooks' research suggests, is through self-talk and self-messaging, and results in improved performance:
Compared with those who attempt to calm down, individuals who reappraise their anxious arousal as excitement feel more excited and perform better. 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.
Can it really be that simple? We think so. Our minds affect much of our outlook and behavior. Along with solid preparation and visualizing your success, telling yourself aloud that you're excited or urging yourself to become so seems to be an excellent way to coax a fear of speaking or the anxiety such fear produces into a mind-set that enhances performance.
We hope you try it. Let us know if you do and how it worked for you. That would be exciting for us.
Unless otherwise noted, quotations in this Speak Previews® appear in Brooks' published article, which can be accessed here.