The Fear of Public Speaking is Very Real for Many People – So is Virtual Therapy the Answer?

Copyright 2006 Harrison Monarth

Pounding heartbeat. Mouth like sandpaper. Watery knees. Palms that are almost too sweaty to hold the glass of water you’re gulping for dear life.

If you’ve experienced these common symptoms of “stage fright,” you’re in good company. The fear of public speaking (technically known as glossophobia) is generally recognized as one of the most common phobias, possibly affecting 75% of all people. In fact, many surveys rank fear of public speaking as the most common phobia of all. The Book of Lists was one of these surveys, ranking this fear as even higher than the fear of death. We’ve all heard the old Seinfeld gag by now:

“A recent survey stated that the average person’s greatest fear is having to give a speech in public. Somehow this ranked even higher than death, which was third on the list. So, you’re telling me that at a funeral, most people would rather be the guy in the coffin than have to stand up and give a eulogy.”

Whether Seinfeld’s conclusion is true has yet to be determined. But it’s a fact that for most of us, the fear of public speaking is an immediate and practical one. Many individuals find that their personal and professional success is highly dependent on their need to speak eloquently and persuasively in important situations. If you’re one of these people, you know that the demand to perform successfully is immediate, and the anxiety can be crippling.

Virtual Reality Therapy to the Rescue?

You may have heard of a budding treatment emerging on the scene. Virtual reality therapy is the new treatment in town, and it’s being praised by researchers as the new way to treat common phobias and psychological disorders. Once the treatment is fully developed, it could offer a cheaper alternative to the time-tested approach of simple practice and qualified coaching.

The development of virtual reality therapy is based on recent advances in computer display technology, which allows subjects to experience “virtual reality” in more detail than was previously possible. Typical VR treatment scenarios require the participant to wear some sort of headset that delivers both visual and auditory input. In this environment, a virtual audience appears. The patient delivers a practiced speech, goes through the paces of a presentation, or just talks. And the virtual audience can be programmed to respond either positively or negatively, so the individual in treatment can experience the whole range of their effect on an audience.

In the Virtual Reality Technology Laboratory in Atlanta, volunteers from introductory psychology classes at Clark Atlanta University experience this virtual auditorium firsthand. In this environment, “Simulation of room and crowd noise, including laughter, commentary and applause is created and experienced as part of the treatment sessions.”1

The Virtual Reality Technology Laboratory isn’t the only place doing research on VR therapy. At the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), researchers are studying how individuals interact with one another inside a virtual reality world. They hope to use these simulated experiences to help alleviate the fears connected with social phobias. In the VHIL’s simulated environment, a person’s virtual identity (or avatar) can look and act as much or as little like them as they choose.2

Researchers at Georgia State University have also been investigating the possibility of VR therapy to alleviate the fear of public speaking. In a 2005 study, subjects underwent four sessions of virtual reality exposure therapy, as well as four sessions of anxiety management training. Participants were required to deliver a speech to an actual audience, both before and after the treatment. While participants self-reported lower measures of anxiety after the treatment, they were no more likely to complete the speech after the treatment than before. Researchers concluded that “using virtual reality for exposure to public speaking may reduce public-speaking anxiety”; however, “further research with a controlled design is needed.”3

Beyond Virtual Reality

There’s still a need for a comprehensive and conclusive study regarding the benefits of using virtual reality exposure to alleviate the fear of public speaking. As of now, the jury is still out on virtual reality therapy.

But some experts in the behavioral therapy world are doubtful. No matter how convincingly a virtual reality environment can mimic the real world, it just isn’t the real world. And no matter how refined virtual reality becomes, it will never deliver the spine-tingling, hair-raising feeling of facing a live audience, filled with dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of real live human beings. This type of atmosphere delivers countless nonverbal nuances to a speaker, and can only be experienced in real life.

Becoming accustomed to this intensity, and learning to turn it into a powerful motivator, is part of what makes a great public speaker really successful. According to Harrison Monarth, president of professional speaking school GuruMaker: “VR therapy may lull people into a false belief that they will lose all fear and anxiety with this therapy, but that is not only unlikely, it would also rob a speaker of the necessary fuel and energy that can make a speech or presentation great.”

GuruMaker offers individualized, intensive one-on-one coaching services to help professionals improve their speaking and presentation skills, and become more effective and powerful communicators. Using professional business actors as audience members and participants, GuruMaker encourages their clients to rehearse real-world scenarios in real environments. And by video taping their clients while they perform, and providing individualized coaching, they offer participants a way to gain a second perspective on their own behavior and presentation.

Is it possible to effectively conquer one’s fears in a virtual world? At this point, no one knows for sure.

While virtual reality becomes more and more like the real world, in the meantime there’s still the genuine article…the real ‘real world’. It’s true that facing our fears and developing greatness in this real world can be difficult. But the jury’s in on this one: it’s definitely worth the challenge.

Notes:

1 Becker, Dennis and Max North. “Virtual Reality: A ‘Real’ Cure for the Fear of Public Speaking,” The Speech Improvement Company.

2 Schuster, Simon. “Virtual Reality Lab at Stanford Explores Identity,” The Stanford Daily, 18 January 2005.

3 Anderson, Page. “Cognitive behavioral therapy for public-speaking anxiety using virtual reality for exposure,” Depression and Anxiety, 2005; 22 (3): pp.156-8.