I always think I have a fear of public speaking. So when my friend asked me to read half a poem at his wedding last week, I sneakily made sure I didn't go first. I emailed the girl I was sharing it with and suggested that I didn't mind if she took the first half. Then I spent a couple of hours locked inside my room, practicing the remaining two stanzas like a possessed wedding entertainer.
The fear of public speaking, or "glossophobia," is one of the most common phobias out there. In the worst cases, some people get sweaty palms, experience heart palpitations, or even verge on panic attacks. My symptoms aren't that extreme; I just get the feeling of being in a weird no-man's land packed with mines, where each stutter or wrongly pronounced word could cause a lethal detonation. Then I breathe, recall how my mom used to tell me to imagine everyone in the audience as a turnip or a cabbage, then weirdly start enjoying the experience.
A week after my wedding ordeal, I found I no longer needed to conjure imagined cabbages. I set off to test my fear of public speaking in front of a simulated virtual audience instead.
Researchers from Imperial College London and the Royal College of Music think they've found one way to beat people's fear of public performance. For the past year, they've been trialling a "performance simulator" that replaces a real-life audience with a phantom one. The simulator digitally mimics the experience of having beady eyes bearing down on you as you give a speech or play a musical instrument in public. It's just that the people you see aren't actually real.
The performance simulator is tucked away in a small, dark tower room at the Royal College of Music in London. As you wait to go "onstage," you see a control panel where the backstage manager controls the settings to your on-stage experience. An entrance slides open onto a performance space equipped with a grand piano, a lectern, and a screen where the digital audience manifests itself.
I'd brought along my now-well-rehearsed wedding poem to recite in front of two sets of digital audiences. First up, I met with three judges. I knew they were fake, but still wasn't prepared for how life-like they'd look. The experience was surreal. They greeted me, told me to start when I was ready, and kept their gaze on me as I recited, then thanked me cordially when I was done. Next up was the full audience. As I said my lines again, they bobbed and swayed, coughed and rustled pieces of paper here and there, then—pretty unexpectedly—gave me a standing ovation and yelled out "Bravo, bravo" as I left the stage. The experience bloated my stage fright-susceptible ego, and I ran out the room filled with a sense of glee.
"We find that musicians spend a lot of time practicing alone in their practice rooms, but they don't necessarily spend time performing in front of other people," Terry Clark, a research fellow in performance science at the Royal College of Music, told me. "Trying to pull together concert audiences or audition panels is logistically challenging, so the idea was to develop this performance simulator to replicate those situations and allow students to practice."
The performance simulator is equipped with multiple functions. For instance, the panel of discerning middle-aged judges can either be fixed on happy mode or act like a trio of hard-to-please grumps. When programmed to be happy, they'll look at you encouragingly, and tell you that your speech was pretty good. When set on grumpy mode, their faces crumple up, they chat amongst themselves, or worse, tell you "that's enough" and shoo you off stage. The audience settings also include stress-eliciting features like heckling, coughing, and mobile phone ringtones.
The aim, said Clark, is to use the simulator to get performers comfortable before they perform in front of a flesh-and-blood audience.
Earlier that day, I'd met with Beate Baldwin, who works on the Executive Impact Lab at Imperial College London, a center used to train would-be business leaders. She explained that when a group of executives from Panasonic had tried out the simulator, they found it so realistic that they all thought they were performing in front of a real panel over a live Skype link. What's more, despite seeing each other perform, and knowing what to expect, most displayed common symptoms of pre-performance anxiety.
"Some of [the executives'] anxiety levels standing backstage were incredible. By the time it got to their turn, they would push through the door, read their speech with their head down, then turn around and run back out," she said.
At present, the researchers are measuring their participants' stress levels, both through surveys and by measuring heart beat fluctuations before, during, and after performances.
"What we found with both the musicians and the executives was that anxiety doesn't peak on stage, but in the few minutes backstage," said Clark.
A camera records you as you perform in the simulator, to allow musicians and execs to witness how they work under pressure. According to Clark, even those who come frequently still experience a degree of stress and anxiety each time they re-enter the simulator.
Next up, the researchers are working on incorporating motion-tracking equipment so that they can be aware of how people's movements, gaze, and attention are affected when they get stressed.
Baldwin and Clark don't want to teach their students and executives just to get through one speech or performance. The idea of the simulator is for an individual to get to grips with their fear by understanding where it stems from, and how it's affecting them both physically and psychologically.
Outside of the simulation room, I met with Aischa Gvendisch, a violin student at the Royal College of Music. She has spent time as a backstage manager assuaging other anxious students before they entered the fake stage arena, and had also experienced the performance simulator several times herself.
"The first time I experienced [the simulator], it was really like a concert setting for me. I really felt like I had to give my best performance, and I had all the symptoms of anxiety and feelings that I have before I go on a real stage," said Gvendisch.
After having practiced my poem until I basically knew my part by heart, I was pretty confident that I wasn't going to fluff up my words in front of any phantom audience. But according to the researchers, it's not just about honing your performance.
Baldwin said that what's important is knowing yourself as only then can you "give a sound presentation, and be credible in front of the public."
All in Your Head is a series that takes a scientific look at all things spooky and scary. Follow along here.