By Steven S. Vrooman
This is a draft of a new chapter I'm working on for the forthcoming second edition of The Zombie Guide to Public Speaking. No one has really done anything like this before for public speaking. It's great to be doing something new. But it is also a bit scary. I want to get it right. Please give me feedback, positive or negative. But do it before June 15th, when I send the manuscript off to get printed.
Chapter 3: Depression
Let’s see: Failure. Anxiety. Depression. I think this book is going well so far, don’t you?
I have never seen a public speaking book with a chapter on this subject. None of my MOPSBOTS even talks about the issue at all! Although there are thousands of studies on anxiety and public speaking, there are only a few about depression and other mood issues and how they interact with the fears and feelings of failure that many of us associate with giving a speech.
I have taught a lot of students who struggled with depression. Although you can perform well in many tasks while depressed, public speaking seems to be an area where it can come unglued for folks who are managing it in other areas of life.
The DSM tells us that in any 6-12 month period, 2-5% of adolescents are depressed (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), that equates to 20% who experience a depressive episode at least once during high school (Gillham & Reivich, 2004). It is 7% for adults. Depression is also difficult to figure out. The last time I was depressed, I didn’t “know it” for months. I was just distant and angry and everything pissed me off. So we might not even know it is happening. We just know that if we have to give one more damn speech to that stupid room full of stupid people, we’re gonna start flipping tables. For some people depression is a long-term challenge, and for others it comes and goes. Some, like Allie Brosh (2013), end up curled up in the corner while they tell themselves thing like, “Do you want to play a game? The game is called Stand In A Corner And Look Stupid. Ready? YOU WIN” (p. 109-110) for a time but feel like a blank and emotionally void computer at other times. It has different and shifting forms and demands.
This chapter is not about providing some sort of therapy to help improve your depression. It is about finding enough of a push through the immobility at the heart of many depressive episodes to allow for the completion of a task. It is about firing up action. It is about getting to completion. Wurtzel (2002) writing about her time as a college student, points to how she “always stored up her deep, depressive episodes for the weeks off when there was time” (p. 116). Ideally, we’d find ways to get better. But in a non-ideal world, sometimes we just need to find ways to get things done.
Even though depression is not as prevalent as speaking anxiety, which is basically ubiquitous, it matters. Further, the things we do to help speakers with their anxiety are not necessarily helpful for speakers with depression.
This is a problem. Even though there are connections between anxiety and depression, and you may very well have both, the experience of how anxiety interacts with public speaking is very different than how depression interacts with it. For people who experience both, there is little out there in books and blogs about speaking anxiety that addresses the interaction of those things with depression.
The structures of anxiety and depression are different. Witt, Roberts and Behnke (2008) found that this is how the two things differ:
The lines represent the amount of, say, “badness” you feel. The “confrontation” moment is when you start the speech. Anxious speakers feel better from the moment they start, and at “release,” which is when they finish, they feel even better. Finally done! Whew! However, depressed speakers, who never felt quite as bad as the anxious speakers did, have a bump up in “bad feelings” after the speech is over that anxious speakers do not. Witt, Roberts and Behnke interpret this moment as “Just as I expected – I knew I couldn’t do it” (p. 226).
Perhaps that continues to build across time. If you imagine a sequence of speeches over the course of a semester or your first year on a job, we could imagine that the anxious speaker’s bad self-talk line likely has a high point that just gets lower and lower in the “anticipation” phase until it is mostly manageable. That’s how I feel about my speeches after 30 years of practice. It’s still there, but I can deal with it. Research has long shown that almost any form of practice helps to reduce anxiety levels. In fact, that finding is so clear that they haven’t done that much work on the issue since the early 80s (Black & Martin, 1980; Glaser, 1981).
We could also imagine that for a depressed speaker, that “release” level, which is almost back up to where it was for “anticipation,” quickly returns there. I imagine the chart expanding to the left, say a week or two before the speech. The anxious speaker is likely not all that amped up yet, but the depressed speaker might be. There may be a steady state of negative self-talk interrupted by a few moments of actual speech-giving which distract.
An early reader of this chapter, who has struggled with depression herself, commented in the margin here, “Perhaps more dreading, leading to procrastination, leading to feelings of failure, and, more than likely, actual failure due to the lack of prep. Depression and procrastination go hand-in-hand, I’ve long felt.” My depressions are kind of a secret to myself until I start procrastinating at levels that are orders of magnitude more than my usual. It really is the first marker for me. I also think I’ve seen all of this in my students. Practice really does help many feel better. Conversely, for the depressed student, watching the anxious folks slowly get more confident while you feel like you keep failing is a challenging and hopeless-feeling slog.
A study by Cocker and associates (2014) on the impact of depression in the workplace suggests keeping people at work and engaged (even with a lowered workload) is better for the person and the company than time off work. Depression might get easier if you make yourself stay engaged? Okay, but many people experience depression, at least when tasks (like speeches) are approaching as “an unexplained and prolonged lack of motivation” (Gardner, 2003, p. 30). If this happens to you, you might already have had the feeling that here’s yet another thing you are doing wrong. You notice the lack of motivation and procrastination and then use that as further fuel for negative self talk.
For many depressed students in my teaching experience, something like a speech seems to weigh as a larger and larger task as it approaches. It seems more and more insurmountable and so, well, why bother working on it? Or, as Klibert and associates (2014) put it: “I’m a failure” and “I cannot escape my fate” (p. 75). Assuming that there is not an option in school or profession to NOT give that particular speech, we are in a particular dilemma whereby the kind of thinking that would lead to a more positive outcome is circumvented by a depressive state of mind which foils such thinking. The workload which must be reduced is subjective and changeable, but it seems to only grow the more you think about it. Perhaps this is a familiar feeling, reader? It does seem like the structure of catch-22 people who suffer with depression report in other elements of life. This cycle is so difficult to break that researchers in Sweden have found a generalized statistical link between lower GPAs and depression but admit that they can’t tell which is the cause and which is the effect (Jonsson et al., 2012). The likely answer is a knotty interaction that seems inescapable.
Obviously some people are helped by various forms of therapy and/or medication. But what about in the moment when you need to prepare this speech that is freaking you out and your current therapy and/or meds don’t seem to be helping quite enough to get you over the hump? Here are a few options:
The current in-vogue model has a lot of experimental support, but there are plenty of studies where it just doesn’t work (for reviews of the research, see Gilham & Reivich, 2007; Nehmy, 2010), so my advice is to try it. If it doesn’t work, move on to something else (but it’s not you failing if it doesn’t work!).
This model, the Penn Resiliency Program (Gilham & Reivich, 2004), is based on Ellis’ (1962) ABC model, which, if you’ve had some intervention for your depression before, you’ve likely seen. A is an activating event. Let’s call it this speech you are going to give or just gave. C is the consequences. The A does not directly cause the C. There is a B that mediates or processes the A. The B is our thoughts and beliefs about the A. Those might be super-negative and seemingly indestructible, as we discussed in the previous section of this chapter. The first goal is to learn that you are not experiencing the “reality” you think you are. The second is to understand how negative and self-sabotaging those B thoughts can be. Here’s an example of how this works:
PRP participants learn the ABC model through the use of three-panel cartoons, in which they are presented with an adversity and the emotional consequences, and they must fill in a thought bubble with a belief that fits the logic of ABC. For example, in one cartoon, the first frame depicts a student being handed back a test that shows many incorrect items. The third frame shows that he is feeling extremely sad. The adolescents are asked to identify what the boy might be saying to himself that is causing him to feel extremely sad (e.g., “I’m stupid” or “I’ll never do well in this class,” etc.). After working through a series of these cartoons, the students practice identifying their own self-talk in situations from their lives and then identifying the emotions and behaviors that their self-talk generates. (Gilham & Reivich, 2004, p. 154-5)
So will this work for you? Here is a zombie version of the three-panel strip to try out:
[Example will go here]
Another way to do this is to test the accuracy of your own B thoughts about your speeches. To do this, VIDEO RECORD YOURSELF. I know. I know. I can hear your groaning through the page. Either give a speech to your iPhone and then watch it, or have a friend record a speech you give for class or in a professional context. Watch it. Grade it. If you are in school, use the rubric your instructor will grade you on. Or use the rubric in Appendix A if you like. Or make up a different one related to what seems to count as a good speech in your professional environment. Now grade yourself.
The next step, if you are in school, is easy. Compare this graded rubric to the one your teacher returns to you.
I heard that.
Your teacher is not going easy on you. It’s not just because they “like” you if they graded you higher than you thought you deserved. Hey, wait a minute! If they are giving you inflated, fake grades because they think you are cool, well, then, why not just keep giving the darn speeches? This is school! Who said you have to like it?
If you invited a business colleague you trust to evaluate your speech for you, you might have the same conversation with yourself. Then find someone you don’t like at work (I know, right? We always love all of our colleagues, so this will be a hard person to find).
The scary part here is that although I am confident that if you are still reading this chapter willingly you will be harder on yourself than they are, what if you give yourself a C and they give you a D or F? Now you KNOW FOR SURE that you suck and everyone hates you, right? You can predict exactly what those Bs in the 3-panel comic will sound like. But I will bet that the grades are not the same. For example, you might hate the way your stupid arm looks hanging stupidly at your stupid side like you are stupid. But they didn’t say anything about it. Maybe you thought your topic was extra-stupid or your introduction was boring or you look like a freak. Maybe they, instead, wrote about how you forgot to cite your sources and how that background on your Power Point, which you thought looked so cool, was kind of distracting. It’s okay if they have real criticism of you. It is okay for you to criticize yourself.
What is not okay is if you are not accurate.
Becoming a more accurate self-evaluator will help. It will help that line on the page [#] graph stop going up so high afterwards.
I Still Feel Like a Failure, Vrooman
Yeah, I get that. The thing about all of these therapies is that each person responds differently. Look at the list of all the things you might try on the beyondblue website (find the link in the Reference List at the end of this book under Jorm et al., 2009). ACT is different than CBT, which is different than MBCT. If you’ve had a lot of these therapies before and still feel like you, in the words of the Internet, “can’t even,” you should check it out and see if there’s something new.
I have another suggestion for you which has worked for many of my students in the past: the “failure” theme of Chapter 1. If the audience isn’t going to like it no matter what, then why put so much effort into it? The effort, in these cases, is often mental: the vast worrying over just the right opening line to use, the paralyzing indecision over what background to use on a Power Point with that particular audience, etc. Cutting back on that mental effort is important. The more the thoughts are directed outward, at a presumed audience who will hate you unless you unlock the secret to doing what they want (this is called socially prescribed perfectionism), the worse it gets:
socially prescribed perfectionists are paralyzed by perceived failures, ultimately inhibiting access to important psychological resources (e.g., positive reappraisal) that promote the desire and ability to overcome adverse conditions. (Klibert et al., 2014, p. 79)
Perhaps giving up on them is a key to help unlock your potential here.
This reminds me of students who were brought to tears the first time they saw Frozen (Buck & Lee, 2013). We’ve all seen enough toddlers lip-syncing “Let It Go” for the film to have lost its power, but initially, Elsa’s shift from “be the good girl you always have to be” to “I don’t care what they’re going to say” brought some of my students to tears. For one student, Elsa’s power and this song perfectly encapsulated her struggles with depression and mental illness. Her version of “Let It Go” was to mutter “Fuck it! Fuck it! Fuck it!” privately before her speeches started. She had done sooooo much work. Her content was always so good. However, the additional work of pleasing her perceived audience was simply too much. She had to . . . let it go.
Get the audience out of your head.
You might think they hate you. So what? Sawyer and associates (2010) did a giant study in Australia that, in my mind, supports this approach. They performed a huge anti-depression intervention for adolescents that was associated with creating a better supportive environment at the schools. It didn’t work. There’s lots of reasons why this might have happened. But maybe one of them is that, in the end, your depression is yours. It doesn’t matter if the people around you are supportive or not, sometimes. It doesn’t help.
Maybe being surrounded by an audience you think hates you doesn’t matter either? Really, if the whole audience gave you a standing ovation and cheered you on and had you autograph their speech outlines and took selfies with you they Instagrammed with #PublicSpeakingRockStar #WeAreAllWitnesses #MicDrop, wouldn’t you think it was all crap anyway? Even if they just say, “Good job,” afterwards, don’t you really just think they are totally full of shit? If a good audience won’t help, a bad audience doesn’t hurt.
Give up on them.
Stop trying to please them.
They are ignorant and need to learn your information. What the hell do they know, anyway? I mean, literally, what do they know?
Realistically, they probably will like your speech, but it won’t matter to you. Screw it. Assume they will hate you. Feed off of it.
I have Twitter conversations with people who hate giving speeches sometimes. Here’s a section of one such conversation I had:
@MoreBrainz: “Plow through it. ‘s ok to hate every minute. Just get to the end.”
Person X: “I have to give it in front of a group that think they know the subject matter better than the lecturer they are dicks”
@MoreBrainz: “Almost all audiences think that all the time. Don’t you, usually? Give em 1 tiny new thing. That’s all u can expect w/ any grp.”
This person’s speech turned out fine. Good enough that this person immediately followed me on Twitter, so I can’t be totally full of it. I gave permission to blow off the stressful audience, and it worked.
Ultimately, I have little faith in the power of practice and optimism for a person whose depression is interacting with their public speaking. Instead, I have seen that the realization that most speeches are failures, that audiences really are mostly bored by most things and that your speech is not a special failure, but yet another brick in the wall of the collective waste-of-time that is much of social life, really does help many in these situations. We need to feel free to not try to hoist the unliftable weight of success.
We, like zombies, are shuffling through an apocalypse of our own devising when we are depressed. We keep drawing the picture of that apocalypse anew as we talk to ourselves and imagine the outcomes. But if we’re always, already going to lose, why not give one last doomed shuffle into the mall? Your audience is barricaded against you. They might even blow you away. But, really, did you have something better to do?
I have outlined two almost opposite approaches to finding a way to get through speeches when you are depressed. It is likely neither of these will really work for you. That’s fine. If they are opposite, there are probably bunches of things in between these options that would be better. Try something, and don’t give up.
If it works, let me know. Maybe your idea will help somebody in the third edition of this book. At the very least, I’ll put it on my blog, where it will help tens of people. ;)
 You might feel like skipping this chapter because this doesn’t apply to you. You’re not depressed, have never been depressed, etc. You might even feel self-righteous about the whole thing: “Happiness is a choice? Why can’t people see that?” Get through the first four paragraphs before you give up on this. I’ll bet there’s some stuff in here that feels familiar. Some depression is long-term and biologically based, yes, but we can all experience the negative self-talk that is at the core of many kinds of depression in smaller and more fleeting ways, especially when confronted with the stress that speech-giving can provoke, especially in the professional world, where you will rarely give a speech where your entire competence and reputation are on the line.
 I find that in my Senior Thesis class, where students work all semester on a project, is particularly conducive to this kind of thing. In many other classes I have fairly large assignments with little allotted work time. I find that 1) most students procrastinate anyway, so I’m not really taking much away from them, and 2) I’ve seen dozens of my students who struggle with depression excel for those quick assignments. There just isn’t time for their negative self-talk to build to the semester-long project’s epic levels. I’m not sure how this would help you, as this is more a message to managers and professors out there, but perhaps a way through would be to own your procrastination enthusiastically in some way? Plan for it. Set the right date and time to begin. You are smart enough to know how much time it will take. Write down the time you will begin work and leave yourself alone about it as much as you can! You are allowed. This book said you could! If it turns out that you were wrong and didn’t leave enough time and your performance is less-than-stellar, well, lesson learned. Adjust for next time. You are a performance system. We are not all Hondas that last forever or McLaren’s that go real fast. We might be my first car, my grandmother’s 1978 Toyota Corona. You never knew when it would start. Kind of a pain. But it all ended up okay.