Before you speak to an audience, can you first talk yourself out of feeling nervous? One step towards this strategy is to find out how confident people speak to themselves in their heads (their internal “self-talk”), compared with others who are more anxious.
Xiaowei Shi and his colleagues surveyed nearly 200 students on a public speaking course. The researchers approached the students after they’d given two public presentations on the course and were soon to give their third. The students answered questions about how much they’d engaged in self-talk in the preceding days, and about how much anxiety they feel towards public speaking.
The women tended to be more nervous than the men. Once this gender influence had been accounted for, the students’ frequency of various types of self-talk over the last few days explained 20 per cent of the difference in their anxiety levels. Specifically, the more confident students tended to say they’d engaged in less self-critical self-talk (e.g. chastising themselves about their poor preparations) and less self-talk related to social assessment (e.g. replaying ways people had reacted in the past), whereas they had engaged in more self-talk related to self-reinforcement (e.g. talking to themselves about how pleased they were with their own preparations).
In other words, the students who were more self-confident tended to be less self-focused and less self-critical in the way they spoke to themselves, and when they were self-focused, this tended to be with a positive bias.
This study assumes people are able to remember and recognise their own past self-talk, which some readers may question. Of course, it’s also just as likely that anxiety triggers particular categories of self-talk, as it is that the wrong kind of self-talk fuels anxiety. Nonetheless, the researchers said their insights could help inform interventions aimed at helping people overcome fear of public speaking.
“As we know that high public-speaking-anxiety individuals engage in higher levels of self-critical and social-assessing self-talk than low anxiety individuals,” Shi’s team concluded, “instructors can intervene in the early phases of the speech preparation process by helping these students to attend to, recognise, and adjust the frequency and nature of their self-talk.”
Shi, X., Brinthaupt, T., & McCree, M. (2015). The relationship of self-talk frequency to communication apprehension and public speaking anxiety Personality and Individual Differences, 75, 125-129 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.11.023