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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Nerves And The Audience- The Inter-relation

The audience is disturbed by nervousness, as well as the speaker. There are two distinct ways in which the audience is affected; their judgement of the competence and subject knowledge of the speaker is affected by his or her nervousness (i.e. ‘Why is he nervous if he knows what he’s talking about?’): and their sympathy and concern are aroused by watching someone who is nervous (‘The poor person is miserable!’).

Firstly, the audience’s judgement of the speaker’s competence is affected by nervousness. The audience interpret the validity of the message depending on their perception of the assurance of the speaker. It is natural to feel that someone who knows what he or she is talking about, shows it in the confidence of his or her manner. So if a speaker is nervous the audience subconsciously feel it is because he or she does not know the subject properly.

There are two components to this: firstly, of course, it is difficult for an audience to realize how frightening they appear to the speaker. If a listener is sitting quietly in a chair, he does not feel very frightening! And he is not really aware of everyone else around him in the same way as the speaker is. So it is very difficult for him to understand why anyone should be nervous about talking to him. The listener tends to think that the speaker’s nervousness must have some other explanation. Secondly, people who are not telling the truth are often nervous. Whereas this is not true of competent tricksters, and there are many other reasons why people are nervous, the unconscious effect of evident nervousness on the audience may be to make them suspicious. Consciously they may be sympathetic, underneath they find their confidence in the message undermined.

So nerves can affect the credibility of a speaker. Studies show that ‘expressed confidence’ (i.e. using confidence asserting phrases such as ‘I am sure…’, ‘I have no doubt that…’), as well as confident behaviour, affects the amount an audience is persuaded by a speaker. It is also easier to listen to a speaker whom you believe to be an expert—there is a subtle sense of time well spent. Whereas listening to someone whom you suspect does not know what he or she is talking about is difficult, because it may be wasted.

For these reasons, nervousness in a speaker affects the benefit the audience gets from a talk. The speaker’s credibility is reduced if he is obviously nervous, and the audience enjoy the talk less. How do the audience know if the speaker is nervous? There are both obvious, and subconscious ways in which an audience perceives nervousness. The subconscious ways depend on non-verbal communication; but also on a phenomenon which has only recently been discovered. Stress shows in a speaker’s voice by signals which are beyond our conscious perception. Listeners are sensitive to the presence or absence of inherent micro-tremors in the speaker’s vocal pitch. All voice patterns include an individual and unique level of micro-tremor (similar in many ways to fingerprints). When someone is placed under stress there is a marked drop in the frequency of vocal micro-tremors, which is registered by the listener. This phenomenon has been used to construct lie detectors, and it may explain why we sense if someone is telling the truth or not. To us it seems like a magic fifth sense, because we are unaware of the physical basis of the evidence, but through micro-tremors, we can judge just how nervous the speaker is.

As well as these unconscious channels of communication, there are many visible signs of nervousness. The basic sign is an inability to stand still when talking:

When a person is emotionally aroused he produces diffuse, apparently pointless, bodily movements. A nervous lecturer may work as hard as a manual labourer. More specific emotions produce particular gestures—fist-clenching (aggression), face- touching (anxiety), scratching (self-blame), forehead-wiping (tiredness) etc… An anxious person tends to talk faster than normal and at a higher pitch.

All these signs will communicate the speaker’s nervousness to the audience. It is such signals which make a listener say, ‘you can hear him sweating with thinking’. They can be controlled, of course, and they ought to be controlled if the audience is to be comfortable. Nothing is more distressing than seeing another person going through a purgatory of anxiety. Out of sheer kindness to your listeners, you should try to damp down the amount of random movement you make. Calmness in the speaker, even if created by conscious self-control, is reassuring and relaxing to the listeners.