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Huh. Apparently Virtual Reality Can Help Folks Get Over Their Fear of Public Speaking.

Huh. Apparently Virtual Reality Can Help Folks Get Over Their Fear of Public Speaking.

Long ago and far away, I managed the training department of a psychological consulting firm. This pretty much meant I was always doing something related to training. Sometimes this meant looking over educators’ training programs and helping them optimize the material for the crowd they were trying to reach. Other times it meant designing custom courses for client companies for workplace wellness and/or conflict resolution.

Occasionally, I even trained people myself (usually via webinar, sometimes in person). This would typically happen either because we needed someone with my particular research expertise (the science behind creativity, especially on teams, believe it or not). Or because it was a hard timeslot to fill (and something general and fundamental that I could train on).

Anyway, it was wild the first time I did a large training in a professional capacity. Because it was pretty high stakes. A huge crowd. Big client. Tough problem and a training I’d worked very hard on to develop to address it.

It ended up going very well. But as I stood up there and faced 60 nurse managers from a very large hospital system (my class for the day), I had a moment where I thought I was going to pass out. The weirdness of the situation descended upon me like an anvil dropped from the sky.

Because, you see, once upon a time, I had a fear of public speaking.

Exposure to Public Speaking Was Probably the Biggest Help for Me

This is something I’ve been working on for most of my life.

There have been a number of things that have helped me. I was forced to take a public speaking class way back in the day. And while I felt like I was going to throw up just showing up there, the teacher was very helpful in teaching some basic speech construction principles (signposting and clear conclusion marking) that helped me a ton.

When I later in life became a researcher (something I never thought would happen to me by the way), learning that when you’re giving a speech, you don’t look nearly as nervous as you feel also helped a ton.

So did mindfulness work.

But really at the end of the day? If I look back and see it, probably what has helped most of all is just freaking doing it. Getting up, giving the speech, feeling like I’m dying during it and that everyone hates me and is laughing at me, and then afterwards finding that the world hasn’t ended after I gave a speech. Exposure therapy basically.

In my own case, I discovered I’m not a bad public speaker at all. In fact, after some of those early speeches (including one I gave to a multicultural psych class about growing up bisexual in a small Maine town), I actually had people come and find me and thank me. Tell me I did a good job.

I wasn’t expecting that at all. My brain told me I was going to die when I had to get up to speak. That I was humiliating myself.

Is it possible that some people secretly hated my speech and thought I sucked? Sure. But you know, if they did, it didn’t really impact anything in a way that it mattered.

And one day it, improbably, literally become my job to train people. Something that required a ton of public speaking.

I Used a VR Headset for the First Time a Few Weeks Ago

Additionally, I used a VR headset for the first time a few weeks ago. My partner had been going stir-crazy at the very beginning of staying at home for the pandemic, so it was something he’d been using a lot for quite some time.

But because I get rather motion sick with 3D video games, I hadn’t yet tried it. My partner said the visual tracking was smooth enough on his headset that I wouldn’t (he was correct). But I still put it off.

And then a few weeks ago, I was really bummed because I hadn’t gotten to travel anywhere in a while (travel is my favorite thing, but also something I can’t do at the moment without selfishly putting healthcare workers and those I love at risk). So my partner found a program that let me feel like I was standing in various cities around the world and urged me to try it.

So I did. And it was way more helpful than I imagined. So much more immersive than I thought it would be.

I’ll probably write more about that experience later.

Anyway, seeing as today’s study is about VR and public speaking, I looked at it with great interest when I stumbled across it.

Apparently Virtual Reality Can Help Folks Get Over Their Fear of Public Speaking.

Today’s study tested a group of patients who all had public speaking anxiety as well as social anxiety disorder (my people!). Participants were coached by a clinician through a battery of speaking exercises and then performed them in front of a virtual audience with the VR headset.

After they gave the speech, participants were also able to experience the speech they just gave as though they were a member in the audience watching them give the speech. In a fully immersive way.

The participants reported marked decrease in their public speaking anxiety following the 3-hour session. And consistent with earlier research that says you really do feel more nervous than you look to the audience, participants rated their speaking performance higher after they watched the playback of their speeches as though they were a member of the audience.

Neat, huh?

I’m looking forward to seeing what other positive applications VR tech can have to people’s wellbeing.

I’m also hoping that the tech keeps improving and that it becomes more affordable as it becomes more popular.


This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.


Featured Image: CC 0 – Pixabay