Friday, June 29, 2012

Don’t forget that July is Freedom from Fear of Public Speaking Month

Once again it is time to celebrate this obscure occasion, which has been named both with and without including the word public.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Does the mimulus Bach flower essence (or remedy) reduce anxiety?

Some people believe that the best remedy for overcoming fear of public speaking is preparation and practice. Others look for shortcuts in alternative and complementary medicine, such as Bach flower essences (or remedies). Back in January 2010 I blogged about flower remedies and a trial of one combination called Rescue Remedy.

Mimulus is another flower essence prepared from a single type of yellow flower, as is shown above. Sara Radcliffe explained that:  

“Mimulus is for those who have specific fears about things, people or events. This includes anticipatory anxiety such as fear of failing an exam or fear of how things will turn out, or fear of poverty as well as phobias such as fear of public speaking, fear of dogs, fear of robbers and so on.”

There is a three-minute video about mimulus with pretty music and images posted on YouTube. But, is there any evidence that it works? I couldn’t find a double-blind trial for  mimulus alone.

However, back in 2001 Harald Wallach, Christine Rilling, and Ursula Engelke published a an article in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders titled “Efficacy of Bach-flower remedies in test anxiety: A double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial with partial crossover.” You can read an abstract here. They looked at a combination of ten remedies containing mimulus and also impatiens, gentian, chestnut bud, rock rose, larch, cherry plum, white chestnut, scleranthus, and elm. Their study didn’t find a significant effect above that of the placebo. If any of those ten remedies were effective it should have. Nevertheless, in 2008 Nelsons issued a press release titled Flower Power + Brain Power = Exam Success.

The image of mimulus came from Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Comparing apples, oranges, and kiwi fruit

Research can be tricky because different people usually ask different questions - which, of course, may lead to finding different answers.

On June 2nd Allan V. Horwitz and Jerome C. Wakefield posted an article titled “Our New Era of Anxiety” at Salon dot com. It was adapted from their new book All We Have to Fear, and subtitled “Anxiety disorder rates have risen twentyfold in 30 years -- largely because psychiatry misunderstands human nature.”

Horwitz and Wakefield say that:

“....Moreover, it might seem as if a startling increase in the number of anxiety disorders has occurred in recent years. Consider that in 1980, the third edition of the authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association stated: “It has been estimated that from 2 to 4% of the general population has at some time had a disorder that this manual would classify as an Anxiety Disorder.”

Then, the first large community study conducted after the publication of this manual, the Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study, found that about one out of ten people had an anxiety disorder in any given year and that roughly 15% of individuals experienced these conditions at some point in their lives.

Just two decades later, a similar and equally rigorous study, the National Comorbidity Study(sic) Replication (NCS-R), yielded the shocking result that almost one out of five people had had an anxiety disorder over the past year, and more than a quarter of the population (28.8%) had had one at some point in their lives.

Even the NCS-R actually underestimates the frequency of anxiety disorders, as measured by psychiatry’s current criteria for diagnosing mental disorder. Because it asks people to remember years later what anxieties they had earlier in life, many respondents forget past episodes. A recent New Zealand study with substantially improved methodology that involved repeated interviews of participants established that in any given year between ages 18 and 32, nearly a quarter of all young adults (22.8%) experience an anxiety disorder and that virtually half (49.5%) report at least one such disorder during the entire period. Obviously, the study would have yielded even higher estimates if it had included disorders emerging after age 32 or before age 18.

How did rates of anxiety disorders rise by as much as twentyfold over the past 30 years to encompass as much as over half the population?”

Now, I don’t think those different rates really are such a big mystery - if you look carefully at what was being measured, how it was done, and where it was done. I’ve summarized those factors in a handy table (which is worth at least a hundred words):

The first paragraph from that quote just described an estimate, which is a polite word for a guess. The DSM defines a yardstick for measuring anxiety considered serious enough to be called a disorder - a phobia. Perhaps the yardstick was the second edition, DSM-II?

Their second paragraph described results from the Epidemiologic Catchment Area (ECA) Study, which surveyed the “watersheds” around five metropolitan areas in the U.S. It was like an apple - a first bite at surveying what went on, and not a random national survey. The yardstick was DSM-III. I’ve blogged about the ECA study. 

Their third paragraph describes the NCS-R, which was a national survey of the U.S. using another yardstick, the DSM-IV. So, it’s like an orange, and can’t necessarily be compared with an apple. I’ve blogged about the NCS-R.

Their fourth paragraph described a study done in New Zealand, home of the kiwi fruit. That’s halfway around the world from the U.S., so there’s no obvious reason for finding the same rate of anxiety.  

Horwitz and Wakefield also omitted discussing the original National Comorbidity Survey (NCS), which used DSM-III as a yardstick. That survey was repeated a decade later as NCS-2, but those results haven’t been reported yet. I don’t think the survey in New Zealand really had any better methodology than what had been used in the U.S.   

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Storytelling - songs of revenge or hope

Feuding families are a familiar theme in literature - Capulets & Montagues, Hatfields  & McCoys, etc. Last month the History Channel did a six-hour mini series on the latter. I avoided watching it, since I didn’t need to see all those pointless cycles of revenge. One reviewer whined: 

“Hatfield vs. McCoy vs. Hatfield vs. McCoy vs. Hatfield vs. McCoy ad nauseam isn’t dramatic. It’s tedious. Somewhere around the three-hour mark, all you want to do is have both families line up opposite each other, pull the trigger and fade to black.”

If you want much the same effect in six minutes instead of six hours, you can listen to the Drive-By Truckers song called Decoration Day. It tells a very similar story about the Hill and Lawson families. (I previously blogged about another less bitter Drive-By Truckers song called 18 Wheels of Love).

About a week ago I started hearing an unfamiliar song on a local alternative FM radio station. It had gorgeous three-part harmony, an unusual mix of instruments, and hopeful, wistful lyrics. A couple lines were:

“That wind is calling my name
I won’t wait, or I’ll never get on”

Eventually I tracked down that it was Half Moon by the Portland, Oregon group called Blind Pilot. (Lyrics are here in the comments on that video).  I didn’t know that in April it had been featured on the finale to the TV show, One Tree Hill. There’s also both another studio version showing the whole group, and a duet. Enjoy!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Fear is based on perception and not reality

A magazine article by the aerobatics pilot Patty Wagstaff in the May issue of Plane & Pilot titled "It’s your perception, not always reality, that causes fear" has excellent advice on handling emergencies that also applies to giving presentations. She said:

“Fear is a reaction based on perception, and fear isn't the reaction we want to have when the you-know-what hits the fan. Perception isn't necessarily truth or reality. We perceive events the way we want to see them, and are conditioned and trained to see them a certain way....

Reacting to emergencies with confidence and not fear is about our perception of the event. Are we prepared? Have we practiced?”

Patty discussed the very first time the propeller of her plane stopped turning while she was doing a tailslide. That’s a maneuver where you first point the nose straight up and begin a vertical  climb. Then you ease back on the throttle, so the plane comes to a stop and begins to fall downward, tail first. At that point you need to turn the plane around so you’re in a dive going forward, not backward.

Although she knew theoretically that the propeller could stop, the real event freaked her out so much that she lost half of her initial 4000 foot altitude before she got the engine restarted and regained full control.

A tailslide in a jet plane looks like this:

The image of her plane came from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

How to be more authentically human

Last month CNN’s Starting Point program interviewed James Lipton (of Bravo's Inside the Actor’s Studio) about a video he had posted on the topic of teaching Mitt Romney how to act authentically human.

Both videos contain useful discussions of body language and being comfortable with yourself. Please ignore the tee shirt commercial at the end of the first one. The second video followed an article that appeared online in New York Magazine on May 15th. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The joy of science - finding out new things

On May 9th the astronomer Phil Plait blogged about having given a brief speech to a group of local students who had participated in a science fair. That post contains his 460 word text. He began as follows:

“I know a place where the Sun never sets.

It’s a mountain, and it’s on the Moon. It sticks up so high that even as the Moon spins, it’s in perpetual daylight. Radiation from the Sun pours down on there day and night, 24 hours a day — well, the Moon’s day is actually about 4 weeks long, so the sunlight pours down there 708 hours a day.

I know a place where the Sun never shines. It’s at the bottom of the ocean. A crack in the crust there exudes nasty chemicals and heats the water to the boiling point. This would kill a human instantly, but there are creatures there, bacteria, that thrive. They eat the sulfur from the vent, and excrete sulfuric acid....”

and he closed by saying:

“Those places I talked about before? You can get to know them too. You can experience the wonder of seeing them for the first time, the thrill of discovery, the incredible, visceral feeling of doing something no one has ever done before, seen things no one has seen before, know something no one else has ever known.

No crystal balls, no tarot cards, no horoscopes. Just you, your brain, and your ability to think.

Welcome to science. You’re gonna like it here.”

Gavin Aung Than paraphrased that speech as a great zen pencils comic, Welcome to Science. (If you’d like a big dose of Richard Feynman, watch the video on The Pleasure of Finding Things Out).

Phil made some dismissive comments about astrologers, psychics, homeopaths, and creationists that may have been inspired by this Tree Lobsters comic. I’ve previously blogged about Phil’s great TEDx Boulder presentation on How to defend earth from asteroids.

Monday, June 11, 2012

What social situations scare American adolescents, and what are their top 20 fears?

Last year there was a magazine article that answered the first question conclusively. It discussed some of the results from a national survey acronymed as the NCS-A. The article by Jennifer G. Green et al. titled “Validation of the diagnoses of panic disorder and phobic disorders in the US National Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent (NCS-A) supplement”, and appeared in the International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research (Volume 20, No. 2, pages 105 to 115). You can read an abstract here, or find the full text here.

The NCS-A was a face-to-face mental health survey of over 10,000 U.S. adolescents with ages from 13 to 17. It was done between February 2001 and January 2004. Not everyone completed the survey, so there were 7682 responses in the first column of Table 4 of that article.

 The bar chart shown above list the results for what percent feared 14 different social situations. (Click on it for an enlarged version). Performing for an audience (35.8%) was first, followed by speaking in class (24.9%). Generally more adolescents feared performance situations than interaction situations. 

What about specific fears, like heights, flying, and closed spaces? Those have not been analyzed in detail yet. However, data from the screening questions SC27A to 27F of the NCS-A is online.

Another bar chart adds those results (gray bars) to those from the Green et al article to produce a list of 20 fears, similar to what I did before with the National Comorbidity Survey-Replication (NCS-R) to make a list of 20 fears for a new millennium. Two of those specific fears have higher percentages than performing in public. So, as I discussed back in January, public speaking isn’t the greatest fear. 

The image of James Dean as a troubled 17-year-old came from the trailer to the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause at Wikimedia Commons. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A compelling failure analysis case history

Some presentations are so compelling that you can remember them, even four decades later. I still recall how back in fall 1971 Jack Low began a case history in his Mechanical Behavior of Materials II class at Carnegie Mellon University.

He passed around a prop - a transparent one-inch wide plastic box containing a sheet of clear plastic. Jack explained that was a replica (copy) of the surface to a broken hinge from the variable-sweep wing of an F-111 fighter-bomber. Both crewmen were killed when that plane crashed at low altitude on December 22, 1969. Then the whole fleet of F-111s was grounded - until General Dynamics could tell the US Air Force what had happened, and how to not have it ever happen again.

On the replica there was a thumbnail-shaped crack which had escaped detection during inspection after forging. In less than a hundred hours of flying it grew to a critical size, and resulted in the left wing falling off. It took Jack four or five classes to lead us through the whole detective story. A brief summary of it appears in John W. Lincoln’s 2000 article about the Effect of Failures on USAF Structural Requirements on pages 3 to 6. What made the story for this case history compelling?

First, it was a real world case which treated us like adults - not an oversimplified example that just used what was inside a textbook. We couldn’t just look up an equation, put in some numbers from a handy table, and get an answer in a few minutes.

Second, Jack introduced us to a new topic, linear elastic fracture mechanics. For homework he gave us photocopies of lecture notes used to teach it to engineers in the nuclear industry. In fracture mechanics there is a criterion for brittle fracture called the critical stress intensity factor, K1c.

You can measure K1c by testing a material in the laboratory. (Jack was on the committee that created the standard test for K1C). For a particular crack geometry you can calculate the stress intensity factor, K1 based on the applied stress and the crack depth. A safe design has K1 less than K1c. The stress analysis course we’d had the previous year taught us how to get from service loads to the applied stress. The crack depth is based on what you can detect via nondestructive evaluation of the product or component.  

A safe design has to allow for cracks growing from repeated loading during service -  a process called fatigue. (Sometimes you can see the fatigue crack-advance markings called striations on a fracture surface). Laboratory tests can measure the fatigue crack growth rate versus changes in the stress intensity factor. The interval between inspections would be chosen based on being able to detect a crack before it could cause failure.

Third, figuring out how to avoid having another failure had required creative thinking. Three different nondestructive test methods were used on the F-111. All had failed to detect that crack in the wing hinge. But, K1c is lower at below room temperature, so they set up to load the wings with each plane sitting in a room at a frosty -40 F. If the wings didn’t break during this cold proof test then fracture mechanics calculations said they also wouldn’t break in flight. Cold proof tests were repeated after every 1500 hours of flying time. The Royal Australian Air Force kept operating F-111 aircraft long after the US had retired theirs, and they continued using the cold proof test.

The image of three F-111 aircraft came from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, June 8, 2012

More American men feared poor sexual performance than public speaking

Back in November 2006 Men’s Health magazine published some surprising results from a web survey. 1356 visitors to their web site were asked if they feared five different things. Their results from page 40 are shown above in a bar chart. (Click on it to see a larger, clearer version).

Poor sexual performance (43%) and growing old (37%) were first and second. Public speaking came third (36%), just slightly ahead of death (35%) and air travel was fifth (12%). Note that this was not a random survey of the general population, but a self-selected bunch of buff dudes. Items in the main subject menu at the top of the Men’s Health home page are: Fitness, Sex & Women, Health, Nutrition, Weight Loss, and Style.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Writing simply and clearly - brief and detailed advice

On May 21st Lee Drutman blogged about The changing complexity of Congressional speech. His post opened by stating that:

“Congress now speaks at almost a full grade level lower than it did just seven years ago, with the most conservative members of Congress speaking on average at the lowest grade level, according to a new Sunlight Foundation analysis of the Congressional Record using Capitol Words.

Of course, what some might interpret as a dumbing down of Congress, others will see as more effective communications. And lawmakers of both parties still speak above the heads of the average American, who reads at  between an 8th and 9th grade level.

Today’s Congress speaks at about a 10.6 grade level, down from 11.5 in 2005. By comparison, the U.S. Constitution is written at a 17.8 grade level, the Federalist Papers at a 17.1 grade level, and the Declaration of Independence at a 15.1 grade level. The Gettysburg Address comes in at an 11.2 grade level and Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is at a 9.4 grade level.”

In her Eloquent Woman blog on May 30th Denise Graveline commented by asking Does simple = stupid in speaking? Why Congress’s report card isn’t bad.

Two years ago at Psychology Today Norman Holland blogged about 3 simple rules for writing that match the human brain. They were to:

1. Use the simplest word that will do the job.

2. Use the simplest sentence structure that will do the job.

3. Use active verbs.

Congress passed Public Law 111-274, the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which directed Federal agencies to use:

“...writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.”

There is a Plain Language web site. One example there starts as:

“When the process of freeing a vehicle that has been stuck results in ruts or holes, the operator will fill the rut or hole created by such activity before removing the vehicle from the immediate area.”

That sentence could be more plainly said as:

“If you make a hole while freeing a stuck vehicle, you must fill the hole before you drive away.”

Detailed advice appears in a Guidelines document that can be downloaded as either an Acrobat pdf file (118 pages) or a  MS Word file.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Has public speaking really been the number one fear of the American public for the last 40 years?

On May 24th Sonya Hamlin posted an article about Stage Fright at the Huffington Post (and on her blog) with a first paragraph containing the following claim:

“... Did you know that the number one fear of the American public -- researched annually for the last 40 years -- has been and still is any form of public speaking! It comes up as number one year after year. Amazing.”

I doubt it. An obvious counterexample is the 2001 Gallup poll reported as Snakes Top List of Americans’ Fears. I posted a comment at the Huffington Post on May 26th asking her for a source, but haven’t yet seen a reply.

After looking both on Google and in magazine and newspaper databases, I could not find any evidence for that claim other than her previous press release and interview back in 2009 - where she had instead said it had been researched for 30 years rather than 40. The press release said:

"Research has been done over a 30-year period asking people every year, 'What gives you the greatest anxiety? What scares you the most?' Number one has always been, giving a speech."

When I put the question phrase "'What gives you the greatest anxiety?” into Google there were only eight results, none of which lead to a source other than Hamlin about there having been 30 years of research. That claim lacks credibility, and the opposite of credibility is bogosity. When I got out my old analog bogometer, her claim put the needle way up in the red zone.

The bogometer scale was derived from a Wikimedia Commons image provided by Lklundin.

Update September 25, 2012

Further search revealed that her quote apparently was based on a claim made by William C. Wilson, Jr. that appeared in an article titled You, Too can be a successful public speaker which appeared in the December 1998 issue of  American Agent & Broker magazine on page 45 and said:

“In an annual survey that has been conducted since 1972, public speaking has consistently ranked No. 1 on the list of things that people fear.”

Mr. Wilson didn’t say who did that survey, but as of 1998 it had been done for 26 years. I don’t know if it continued annually since then.  

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Advice about speech writing from a guy who wrote the book on scriptwriting

J. Michael Stracznski wrote The Complete Book of Scriptwriting. On page 160 of the 1996 revised edition he said that when writing a screenplay you should:

“Avoid long, potentially tedious monologues. An unbroken speech that runs a page or more can slow the pace of your screenplay to a tortuous crawl. Handled well and carefully crafted, a brief speech can be a stirring, moving moment in your story. Handled improperly, long monologues can be deadly to an otherwise sterling script. If it is essential that a lot of information be conveyed in a single scene, try to break it up with occasional reactions from the other person or persons in the room.  

....If you decide to use the device of the long monologue, use it sparingly. There’s a classic scene in The Great Muppet Caper wherein actress Diana Rigg delivers a long monologue filled with more information than anyone could possibly care to hear. After the speech, Miss Piggy (manned - or perhaps pigged - by Frank Oz) asks ‘Why are you telling me all this?‘ Rigg simply shrugs and says, ‘It’s exposition. It has to go somewhere.’ ” 

Appendix Two of Stracznski’s book is one of his scripts from the wonderful science fiction television series Babylon 5, which he created. It ran from 1991 through 1995 and mostly took place on a giant space station. The prequel movie Babylon 5: In the Beginning contains this inspirational speech by the Earth president just before the  last-ditch Battle of the Line

“This is the President. I have just been informed that our midrange military bases at Beta Durani and Proxima Three have fallen to the Minbari advance. We have lost contact with Io and must conclude that they too have fallen to an advanced force.

Our military intelligence believes that the Minbari intend to bypass Mars and hit Earth directly, and the attack may come at any time. We have continued to broadcast our surrender and a plea for mercy, and they have not responded. We therefore can only conclude that we stand at the twilight of the human race. 

In order to buy more time for our evacuation transports to leave Earth, we ask for the support of every ship capable of fighting, to take part in a last defense of our home world. We will not lie to you. We do not believe that survival is a possibility. We believe that anyone who joins this battle will never come home.

But, for every ten minutes we can delay the military advance, several hundred more civilians may have a chance to escape to neutral territory. Though Earth may fall, the human race must have a chance to continue elsewhere. No greater sacrifice has ever been asked of a people, but I ask you now - to step forward one last time, one last battle to hold the line against the night. May God go with you all.”

The epilogue for Babylon 5 contains an excellent  brief monologue by Susan Ivanova that summarizes the entire series. It appears starting at 1:35 in the clip shown above.

“Babylon 5 was the last of the Babylon stations. There would never be another. It changed the future and it changed us. It taught us that we have to create the future, or others will do it for us. It showed us that we have to care for one another, because if we don’t, who will? And that true strength sometimes comes from the most unlikely places. Mostly though, I think it gave us hope that there can always be new beginnings - even for people like us.”  

At 30 seconds into the clip, Mr. Stracznski appropriately appears in coveralls to turn out the lights - just before they blow up the station. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Two funny TV commercials about presentations

Andy survives being casually dressed in this Mennen SpeedStick commercial. (In another a singer forgets the lyrics, so he does a cowbell solo).

Robin is described as Princess of the PowerPoint. Instead it looks like she got a 10-minute introductory course.

Two adjoining slices in her pie chart have barely distinguishable colors. Could you tell them apart without the dotted red line I added?

Her quarterly results bar chart used the unnecessary and confusing 3D option, which makes it hard to read. Tom Mucciolo has a detailed critique of this ad.