If you’re nervous about public speaking, don’t picture everyone in their underwear. In fact, maybe don’t look at the audience at all. A new study finds that anxious speakers are more likely to zero in on the worst audience members—people frowning or yawning in response to the speech. 

The Peking University–led study, published in Cognition and Emotion, asked volunteers to come up with a three-minute speech on the fly and then present it extemporaneously over Skype to a “live” audience, as BPS Research Digest details. The video was prerecorded with actors who were instructed to respond positively by smiling and nodding or negatively by frowning or yawning. While the presenters gave their speeches, the researchers tracked their eye movements to figure out who they were looking at.

Participants who admitted having high social anxiety were more likely to focus in on the negative reactions of audience members, largely ignoring the smiles and nods and spending more time staring at the frowners. People who weren’t that anxious, by contrast, saw the negative reactions but shifted their gaze to more receptive-looking audience members. The highly anxious participants tended to feel more uneasy the more time they spent looking at the frowning audience members.

This suggests that being nervous results in a bias toward paying attention to the negative and ignoring positive feedback. Staring at people who look bored or disagreeable, in turn, makes nervous speakers even more anxious. People who weren’t as anxious about speaking didn’t give the haters more than a passing glance, understandably preferring to look at people who were nodding along. So to be less of a nervous wreck at a lectern, try looking for an agreeable face in the crowd. Or just look over everyone’s heads.   

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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