By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
I was recently working with an expert witness facing his first time in an American courtroom, armed with English as his third language. At the end of our conversation, I told him that I thought he would really enjoy it, and find it truly interesting. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was reframing the experience for that witness in the direction the research would recommend. By treating the testimony, not as something to be anxious or worried about, but as something to be interested in and even excited about, I may have been reducing that witness's subjective feeling of stage fright. Based on a recent study (Brooks, 2013) published last month in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, that kind of reframing works not only to make the experience more tolerable and pleasant, but also to increase the effectiveness and the credibility of the communication. The study found that participants told to give themselves the message "I am excited" did better in public speeches and also on math tests, than those who gave themselves the message "I am calm."
I always like it when research confirms my intuitions. In my many years of teaching public speaking, I used to tell my students about Johnny Carson's claim that he was frightened just about every night before going on television in front of millions of people, and the few nights he wasn't nervous tended to be the nights the monologue bombed. Apparently, effectiveness in communicating isn't created, or even aided, by an absence of anxiety. Instead, that anxiety or, more generally, the energy that accompanies it -- can be an important part of becoming prepared and successful. This changes the way we think about managing stage fright in legal presentations for witnesses, attorneys, and anyone else in trial. In this post, I take a look at both the research and offer a little practical advice for turning anxiety into energy for effective presentation.