Over the years, I’ve shared several techniques on how to manage your nerves before a speech. (See this blog and this blog.) Today I’d like to share another one. The scientific name is ‘affect labeling’ but I use another term: ‘naming it.’
Affect labeling basically means identifying an emotion as you’re experiencing it. When I was growing up, my Dad accidentally backed our Plymouth Valiant out of the garage with a backseat door open. The screech of crunching medal filled the garage. Dad stopped the car, hopped out, and stared at the crease in the door. He was fuming. Clearly, someone hadn’t shut the door behind them. His anger was, of course, understandable, and he was probably more upset with himself than any of us. But I remember him being pretty darn mad. Now, in retrospect, I know that affect labeling would have quieted the storm.
Identifying our emotions (Dad saying, “I’m royally pissed off right now”) has the power to calm them. That was the finding of psychologist Matthew Lieberman who coined the term ‘affect labeling’ in 2007. You can read the whole study here. The short version is that naming your emotions disrupts the amygdala, the part of our brain responsible for fear, anger, and other emotions.
There’s now a large body of work on affect labeling. One more study worth mentioning involved spiders and people who feared them. Michelle Craske and her research team divided participants into four groups and asked them to walk toward spiders. As they did so, one group was told to label their feelings (ex: “I’m scared, anxious”). Another was asked to think of the spider as less threatening (ex: “You can’t hurt me.”). Still another group was directed to distract themselves (ex: “This is an experiment. I’ll be fine.”) and the last group was a control group (given no instructions.)
The study found that the first group – people who acknowledged their fears – had the lowest emotional reaction to the spiders than any other group. Psychology Today summed up the study, “These findings suggest that having greater emotional clarity about one's fear can help reduce the physiological manifestation of this emotion.” One more key finding of the study is that verbalizing emotions (not just thinking them) is what made the difference.
Affect labeling is a useful technique to manage those overwhelming feelings you have before speaking in public. I often ask speakers, while they are rehearsing or before they step onto the stage, to stop and reflect. What are they feeling right now? Their answer – just naming it – puts the emotion under a microscope and turns it into an object they can observe. As a result, fear and anxiety no longer grip them, no longer control them. The result? They’re able to relax and deliver a much more natural, compelling talk.