The write road to brilliant public speaking

Writing before high-pressure situations can raise your performance in them, according to new research.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but taking a moment to focus on your fears by jotting them down can help you to rise to the challenge. And this can apply to anything that gets your adrenaline pumping, whether it’s facing public speaking, nailing a sales pitch, or representing your company in the annual bowling tournament.

Under pressure

It’s a frustrating fact of life that the skill levels we know we’re capable of can seem to slip when we’re counting on them most. But feeling the pressure doesn’t have to result in a performance dip, says University of Chicago psychology professor Sian Beilock, who co-authored the study with graduate student Gerardo Ramirez.

They found that students who wrote down their anxieties 10 minutes before a maths test achieved significantly better results than another group, who were asked to sit quietly during the same time period. The researchers increased the pressure by telling the students they were to be recorded, and that they could win money if they did well. Not only did the first group outperform the second, they also beat their own scores from a previous test in which they had no additional pressures.

Free your mind

This problem of under-performing, or ‘choking’, often occurs when we overload our working memory. This is the part of the brain that temporarily holds onto and sorts out information relevant to our immediate task. Essentially, it enables us to do well. But when the pressure gets too much, it can no longer put the ‘work’ in ‘working’. No doubt this is what happened to the students who sat and stewed before the maths test.

But committing our fretting to paper acts like an intervention for the brain, focusing and calming the mind, while allowing us to re-evaluate the fears in question. ‘For those students who are most anxious about success,’ says Beilock, ‘one short writing intervention that brings testing pressures to the forefront enhances the likelihood of excelling, rather than failing, under pressure.’

Stepping up

And even for those of us who thrive on pressure, this practice is still pertinent. Beilock’s book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To, examines how everyone from boardroom executives to top athletes (Andy Murray, take note) can raise their game, or at least avoid letting the side down.

‘We think this type of writing will help people perform their best in a variety of pressure-filled situations,’ says Beilock, ‘whether it is a big presentation to a client, a speech to an audience or even a job interview.’

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