Among the most common social anxieties, fear of public speaking isn’t generally eased by encouragement. However, new research reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology IDs a powerful technique that turns happy memories into public speaking skills.
Calling up specific memories affects the way you think of yourself, explains Kathy Pezdek, a psychologist at Claremont Graduate University. For instance, if you can remember a time when you successfully spoke in front of a crowd, you’re more likely to believe you’re a good public speaker. “It reframes the issue in terms of successful experiences with that behavior,” says Pezdek. Whereas other studies have attempted to capitalize on the memory effect by planting false memories of speaking success (an ethically problematic feat), Pezdek showed that true autobiographical memories boost your ego and, in turn, your performance.
Subjects either wrote out a childhood memory of successfully addressing a group or wrote about a time they’d overcome an animal or medical phobia. Then they stood behind a podium and delivered a five-minute speech, while an evaluator in the audience intermittently winced and rolled her eyes. The students who had focused on a public speaking memory gave superior public speaking performances and had lower anxiety and cortisol levels, despite the disturbing feedback.
“When people are anxious about public speaking,” says Pezdek, “the anxiety serves as a retrieval cue for other anxiety-producing experiences and sparks a snowball effect. The positive memory breaks that accumulation of negative memories.”