Giving a speech or presentation can be stressful. Even seasoned public speakers get butterflies in their stomachs prior to stepping on stage. Most people deal with the pressure by trying to calm down. They sit quietly, take deep breaths and tell themselves, silently or aloud, to calm down, that there is nothing to worry about, etc. But recent research suggests that this might be precisely the wrong strategy.
Trying to calm down is not a good strategy
In a paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, which is published by the American Psychological Association, Professor Alison Wood Brooks of the Harvard Business School found that “[a]n overwhelming majority of people (more than 90%) believe the best way to manage pre-performance anxiety is to ‘try to calm down'”. Brooks believes that a better approach is to reframe the anxiety as excitement.
Drawing on previous research, Professor Brooks describes anxiety as “a state of distress and/or physiological arousal in reaction to stimuli including novel situations and the potential for undesirable outcomes”. Such stimuli include singing in front of others, taking a test, having a job interview and, of course, speaking in public.
All psychological states share two attributes: arousal and valence. Arousal can be high (e.g., afraid, excited) or low (e.g., bored, relaxed). Valence refers to whether a psychological state is positive (e.g., excited, relaxed) or negative (e.g., afraid bored.) Thus, there are four quadrants to psychological states as in the grid below.
Research shows that trying to decrease anxiety before an event is difficult (because high arousal is automatic) and often ineffective. Professor Brooks writes that when you try to calm down before an anxiety-producing event, you are trying to shift both your arousal (from high to low) and your valence (from negative to positive).
Time to get excited
It is much better, in her opinion, to reframe the anxiety as excitement because anxiety and excitement are both high arousal psychological states. Professor Brooks says that they are arousal congruent. Thus, instead of trying to change both arousal and valence, with Professor Brook’s approach, you only have to change valence.
So far, so good. But what do you have to do to get yourself in a positive frame of mind? According to Professor Brooks, it might be something very simple. She conducted several studies, the design and procedures of which are thoroughly detailed in her paper, which you can read here.
One of those tests involved public speaking. Participants had two minutes to prepare a speech on the topic, “Why you are a good work partner”. To increase the anxiety of the participants, Professor Brooks told them that they would deliver their speeches to an experimenter and that he would video the speeches for later judging by a “committee of peers”.
After preparing their speeches but before delivering them, participants were randomly assigned to say “I am excited” or “I am calm”. They then delivered their speeches. The experimenter and the independent raters who watched the videos did not know the experimental conditions and hypothesis.
Those participants who said “I am excited” spoke longer than those who said “I am calm”; they reported feeling more excited about their speeches; and they felt marginally more satisfied with their speeches. As for the (blind) evaluators, they found that the participants who had said “I am excited” were more persuasive, more competent and more confident than their counterparts.
Why excitement is good
On this particular test, Dr. Brooks concludes:
Being asked to give a 2-min public speech on camera caused individuals to feel very anxious. Compared with reappraising their anxiety as calmness by stating “I am calm,” reappraising anxiety as excitement by stating “I am excited” caused individuals to feel more excited, to speak longer, and to be perceived as more persuasive, competent, confident, and persistent.
As to why reframing anxiety as excitement improves performance, Dr. Brooks posits:
[I]ndividuals in a positive affective state are more likely to interpret issues as opportunities, whereas individuals in a negative affective state are more likely to interpret issues as threats. In this way, excitement may prime an “opportunity” mind-set, whereas trying to calm down may perpetuate a “threat” mind-set.
[R]eappraising anxiety as excitement will cause individuals to adopt an opportunity mind-set and improve their performance, whereas reappraising anxiety as calmness will cause individuals to perpetuate the threat mind-set typically associated with feeling anxious.
Dr. Brooks acknowledges the need for more research on this subject. She recognizes that other strategies, such as meditation, might be useful to calm down before anxiety-inducing events. And, of course, the timing of such strategies (e.g., one week before the event vs 15 minutes before the event) is important. But she maintains that her findings “demonstrate the profound control and influence we have over our own emotions.”
I found Dr. Brooks’ paper very insightful. When I began my speaking career, I would try to calm down before I stepped on stage. With time, I changed my approach, and began to “pump myself up” with positive messages about how I would perform. The latter approach boosts my confidence and helps me hit the stage with a high level of energy.
The way we verbalize and think about our feelings affects the way we actually feel. And how we feel has a big impact on how we perform. So the next time you have to speak in public, as you are getting ready to go on stage, instead of trying to calm down, get excited!