When I became convinced that nothing on this earth could cure me of my fear of public speaking, I strapped on a virtual-reality headset and visited an imaginary realm. I stood in a room that was done up in putty tones and anodyne corporate furniture; through the windows, a glittering metropolis loomed. This strange new land, which had been constructed for the sole benefit of people like me, was simultaneously familiar and otherworldly—“Blade Runner” by way of “Office Space.” A gang of 3-D-modelled denizens, seated around a long table, stared at me in a blank manner that bordered on hostile. Their expressions did not soften as they followed me around a series of simulated environments, each blander than the next, and watched as I attempted to address them with something like composure.
Glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, didn’t present itself to me until my mid-thirties, when I started working at a company where the ability to deliver snappy elevator pitches was key to an employee’s success. On big meeting days, I’d arrive at work early and shut my office door so that I could practice two or three basic sentences to say aloud to the group. These rehearsals made no difference. When it was my turn to speak, I would start sweating, and white flashes would overtake my field of vision the moment I moved my lips. I’d spend the rest of the meeting swallowing tears.
These days, I spend my time writing in a groovy co-working space, where I don’t know a soul and enjoy unlimited fruit water and soundproof glass booths, where I can take a phone call in peace. But my first adult novel is coming out in June, so my publisher invited me, along with three other authors, to travel up and down the Eastern Seaboard to pitch our books to rooms of booksellers and radio producers, in an attempt to create buzz. I was more concerned with not making too memorable of an impression. There would be back-to-back parties, at which we would each deliver one-minute speeches. On paper, the address I’d composed was fine, but, every time I tried to practice, an image of a room full of unblinking faces appeared in my mind, and my stomach pretzeled.
I stood in a room that was done up in putty tones and anodyne corporate furniture; through the windows, a glittering metropolis loomed.
Photograph Courtesy VRSpeaking
So I got in touch with Jeff Marshall, the designer of Ovation, a virtual-reality public-speaking program, and asked him to be my savior. I thought that virtual-reality exposure therapy would be the best solution for me, given that I conduct the majority of my conversations by text or on Instagram. It was certainly more appealing than seeking out a local Toastmasters chapter or signing up for an improv-comedy workshop. Though virtual reality is better known for its ability to keep gamers up all night, it is also a proven aid for those suffering from a panoply of fears, including a fear of heights, a fear of insects, and dental and pre-surgical anxieties. Since the nineteen-nineties, clinical trials have shown that this field of technology can be just as efficacious as traditional exposure therapy—a phantom spider is just as good as a real one, in other words.
Exposure-therapy programs make up a small but significant part of the booming virtual-reality market. One, called Limbix, employs Google Street View to pull up panoramic images of outdoor locations associated with trauma, which it uses to help people with P.T.S.D. Another program, Now I Can Do Heights, caters to people who suffer from acrophobia, by teleporting users to settings high above ground. Unsurprisingly, there are a great number of options for people like me. One called Personal Life allows users to practice making small talk and sing karaoke in front of virtual friends and colleagues. Limelight VR, a program created by a team of clinical and experimental psychologists, places the user in a familiarly nerve-racking setting, such as an office or a classroom. I selected Marshall’s software, which is similar to Limelight but was released more recently, in October of last year, and has astonishingly detailed visuals.
For a twenty-dollar monthly subscription fee, Ovation grants glossophobes unlimited practice in simulated settings that Marshall devised with his five-person core team, which is based out of Somerville, New Jersey. These settings include Classroom, High Rise (a meeting room in a skyscraper), Courtroom, and various iterations of Hotel Banquet and Conference Halls. Users select seats at tables or in rows and choose crowds that are small or large. The audience members are renderings of real people, representative of several racial groups, who sat for Marshall’s 3-D imaging team. No detail was overlooked in creating the spaces, from faux-fancy, swirl-patterned carpets to platters of picked-over baked goods.
I met with Marshall in one of the larger glass enclosures at my co-working space. He showed me how to use the program to teleport across cavernous halls and land inches away from strangers, where I could admire rogue gray hairs on their heads and fine webs of wrinkles on their slacks. I was drawn to a woman sitting in a middle row of a banquet-hall audience. She appeared to be miserably bored, as if waiting for a train that would never arrive. She had dun-colored hair, worn in a bun that did not suit her. I reached out to touch it. She blinked, and my hands disappeared from view, sinking into the depth of her head. I backed off and marvelled at the sight of my alternate self’s hands, which were covered with barely detectable freckles and hair follicles. Marshall helped me adjust the size to more closely resemble my own.
Marshall showed me how to use the program to teleport across cavernous halls and land inches away from strangers.
Photograph Courtesy VRSpeaking
I styled everyone in the program in casual, just-stopping-by-the-bookstore clothing, adjusted the gender ratio to include more women, and set the audience rudeness level as high as I could. Now everyone assembled was checking their phones, crossing their arms, or yawning theatrically. I spotted kindness on only one face. Ned, as I decided to call him, was a balding man in a gray cardigan. His hopeful eyebrows told me that he’d been through a lot.
I wheeled the Ovation machine home, in a suitcase, and spent the next few days practicing. Thanks to a real-time “heat map” that tracks a user’s visual attention, I could plainly see that my gaze favors the left side of the room. I watched the words “very” and “so” rise faithfully from my mouth like bubbles. Even though I knew that I was alone in my kitchen, in the middle of the day, and that Ned and his rude friends were illusory, my nerves kept tripping me up. A man who was seated near me at a conference table picked at some lint on his trousers, and I lost my footing and had to start the recording over. Again and again, I recited my spiel over a soundtrack of coughing and an occasional unsilenced mobile device. When I made it all the way to the end of my remarks, the crowd granted me a lackluster round of applause.
My avatar—who had my round face and slumped posture—appeared during the playbacks. From my position at the edge of the imaginary room, all I could do was watch her ape my body movements and listen to the recording of my speech. The program designates a grade at the end of each playback, factoring in gaze distribution, pace, pauses, reliance on filler words, and hand activity. Five days in, my scores still hovered around seventy per cent. (My dead-fish hands earned consistent fourteens.)
I practiced over and over again, in every environment on offer, for audiences of all available attitudes and sizes. A manager who had me into her office for a one-on-one sit-down did not appear to be moved. But, in the group settings, Ned was always somewhere to be found, soothing me with a look of compassionate distress.
As my hours spent behind goggles moved into the double digits, I became accustomed to pacing around the kitchen and talking to myself. I dropped lines that felt extraneous, simplified sentences that tripped me up. My speech became tighter, and my relationship to it began to take on the slightest edge of boredom. On the night of my first I.R.L. appearance, I surveyed the crowd from a spot in the shadows of the room. While the other authors spoke, I located a young woman whose wide eyes and bobbing head suggested a sympathetic soul—a new, real-life Ned. When it was my turn to speak, I focussed on her and stepped into the light.