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Can three simple questions change the way you process information and thereby reduce the angst we feel during and after presenting? New research from Kings College London and Oxford University by clinical psychologists Rachel White and Jennifer Wild seems to suggest they can. These researchers explore if the way people think about trauma inducing events can protect them from experiencing the often negative after effects. According to the theory these authors leverage, when processing information, people tend to fall into one or two camps: concrete or abstract. Dr. White explained the difference between these two types of processing in a press release from Oxford University as follows: “Concrete processing is focusing on how a situation is unfolding, what is being experienced and what the next steps are. It differs from abstract processing, which is concerned with analyzing why something is happening, its implications, and asking ‘what if’ questions with no obvious answer.” In other words, when processing something in a concrete manner, you tend to focus on “the what and how” of an event, while abstract processing focuses more on “the why.” Interestingly, you can learn how to process one way versus the other.

White and Wild’s research found that people instructed to take a concrete processing approach to watching traumatic movies experienced fewer intrusive thoughts and emotional angst after the events than those who were taught to process the stimuli in an abstract manner.

Since public speaking can be a traumatic event, I believe taking a concrete processing approach to your own presenting can help reduce the impact of anxiety the moment as well as after. So how can one adopt a concrete processing approach? White and Wild trained their participants to focus on the following aspects of the traumatic event:*

  1. The specific and objective details of the event, such as what you can see or what you can hear
  2. The sequence of events like what happened first, second, and third
  3. The next steps after the event occurred

By asking yourself and answering these three questions (or questions like them) prior to speaking, you put yourself into a concrete processing mode, which should lessen the intensity of your anxiety. Additionally, these questions will help you have a present-focus, which as I have discussed in previous blogs, helps to reduce goal-based anxiety.

*Rachel White, Jennifer Wild. “Why” or “How”: The Effect of Concrete Versus Abstract Processing on Intrusive Memories Following Analogue Trauma. Behavior Therapy, 2016; 47 (3): 404 DOI: 10.1016/j.beth.2016.02.004