Most of us know how nerve-wracking it can be to lead a presentation at work. There are the nightmares beforehand about showing up naked to the conference room; the shaky legs and sweaty palms during the actual meeting; and the rumination afterward over your performance.
Fortunately, there may be a relatively simple way to alleviate much of this anxiety: Talk to yourself like you’d talk to someone else in the same situation.
According to research led by University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross, Ph.D., using either your first name or the pronoun “you” instead of “I” can make it easier to deal with stressful experiences.
In one study, Kross had men and women undergrads give a speech about why they were qualified for their dream job. Everyone had five minutes to prepare for the speech. Then they were instructed to write down how they were psychologically gearing themselves up for the public speaking exercise. Some were told to use “I,” while others were told to use either second-person pronouns (“you”) or third-person pronouns (their name).
Results showed that participants who used “I” became anxious about the impending speech, recording phrases such as, “How can I possibly write a speech in five minutes?” On the other hand, those who used their own names demonstrated more confidence, telling themselves things like, “You can do it, John.”
When it came to the speech, the first-name group performed better, according to independent raters. They were also less likely to brood and feel shame after giving the speech.
Other studies by Kross suggest that, when people use their first names, they’re more likely to see stressful situations (like public speaking) as challenging, rather than threatening. What’s more, they feel as though they’re helping a pal, which is generally easier than telling yourself how great you’re going to be.
“It’s very easy for people to advise their friends, yet when it comes to themselves, they have trouble,” Kross told Psychology Today. “But people engaging in this process, using their own first name, are distancing themselves from the self, right in the moment, and that helps them perform.”
This study adds to a growing body of research on the motivational power of “self-talk,” and specifically of addressing yourself as though you were someone else.
Obviously, it isn’t always easy to hold an empowering conversation with yourself at your desk. But even writing down your thoughts and using the second or third person can be helpful. (One of the study authors writes herself emails when she’s stressed.) This simple linguistic tweak can make a substantial difference in both your attitude and performance.