‘Alexa, How Was That?’ Smart Speakers May Soon Act As Public Speaking Coaches

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Public speaking can be nerve wracking. Some people excel at getting in front of an audience and commanding a room, but many more are deathly afraid of being the center of attention. Public speaking is unavoidable, though, in certain circumstances. We’ve all had to make that long walk to the front of the classroom or lecture hall. However, it appears some robotic help may soon be on the way.

Researchers from Penn State have developed a program that turns Amazon’s Alexa into a public speaking coach.

The public speaking tutoring program teaches users cognitive restructuring exercise, a psychological technique designed to alleviate anxiety while recognizing and changing negative thought patterns. The program was given a test run for this study, and it successfully alleviated participants’ pre-speech anxiety.

“This study represents a significant shift in our use of smart speakers, from a tool that answers questions to one that acts as a helper or coach,” says S. Shyam Sundar, James P. Jimirro Professor of Media Effects in the Bellisario College of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State, in a release.

Jinping Wang, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student in the Bellisario College of Communications, says Alexa and other smart speakers may one day be considered a legitimate alternative to human coaching.

“There is often a concern of being judged by human tutors or human therapists,” Wang explains. “If we can use a machine like Alexa to provide such training to individuals with speech anxiety or social anxiety, we can help them get rid of their concern of being judged by a human.”

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Study participants were randomly assigned to train with either a highly social Alexa, or an Alexa that was much more robotic and impersonal. Then, each person was told to use what they learned from Alexa to prepare and perform a short speech using a VR simulator that created a room full of 20 people. Afterward, participants were asked to fill out a survey on the entire experience.

Participants who were coached by the more sociable and personal Alexa reported feeling less anxiety about the speech and having a better time in general.

“If you think about the usual interactions with Alexa, they’re quite dry and very functional,” says co-collaborator Saeed Abdullah, assistant professor of information sciences and technology. “But providing some sort of social cues seems to result in positive outcomes for users.”

“People are not simply anthropomorphizing the machine, but are responding to increased sociability by feeling a sense of closeness with the machine, which is associated with lowered speech anxiety,” Professor Sundar adds.

This program could revolutionize public speaking training programs, allowing students to learn from the comforts of their home. Moreover, if Alexa is capable of helping with this specific form of anxiety, who’s to say she can’t help with other forms?

“Alexa is one of those things that lives in our homes,” Professor Sundar concludes. “As such, it occupies a somewhat intimate space in our lives. It’s often a conversation partner, so why not use it for other things rather than just answering factual questions?”

The study was set to be presented at the 2020 ACM Conference on Human Factors and Computing Systems, before it was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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