Handling Accountancy Exam Day Nerves: Lessons from Public Speaking

VIVA Co-founder and Case Study tutor shares insights from the latest research on public speaking to help you overcome nerves in your ACCA and CIMA exams.

Because fear of public speaking is so common, and the stakes can be so high, a huge amount of time and energy has been devoted to understanding the causes of this fear, and how it can be managed.

But what's the connection between public speaking and professional accountancy exams, you might ask?

In a word: performance.

Or more precisely, time-bound, on-demand performance. When you sit a high-stakes exam, many of the same anxiety triggers and physiological symptoms come into play.

And these physiological and psychological effects can seriously disrupt your ability to perform on exam day.

Strangely, not as much time and energy has been devoted to studying and managing these effects in the context of exam performance. However, many of the same scientific insights from public speaking can be applied directly to exam-sitting.

And that's what we're going to share with you here. Here are 5 scientifically proven ways to reduce nerves and improve performance on exam day.

1. A necessary, but not sufficient condition...

Let's start with the obvious. Even if you follow all the steps below, and go into your exam feeling calm, confident, in control and enthusiastic - none of that will matter if you haven't actually done the necessary study and preparation!

So don't fool yourself: you're going to have to put in the hard hours and actually study, learn, practice and understand all the required information before you sit your exam.

Annoying, I know! But a worthwhile reminder. There are no shortcuts.

However, do bear in mind: there is a science to learning and practising aswell! And there's a lot you can do to optimise your study methods and make them more efficient. Check out our free ACCA guides here, here, here and here; and our free CIMA guides here, here and here.

2. Tell yourself you're excited about sharing your insights

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This is going to sound silly, but this has been proven to be effective at helping those with fear of public speaking to manage that fear and deliver great talks and presentations.

This is a kind of positive affirmation or "mantra" approach - except without all the spiritual baggage. Tell yourself in the days and hours before the exam: "I'm looking forward to sharing my insights and knoweldge".

Keep repeating this to yourself (again, this will only work if you've actually put in the prior work!), and you'll soon find that you actually are looking forward to "proving yourself" on exam day. To showing the examiner and others what you know, the great new skills and ideas that you've mastered.

It sounds like a strange hack, but this has been shown to work again and again at calming nerves and improving performance.

3. Mentally rehearse/visualise excellent performance

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Psychologists have found that having clients/subjects repeatedly imagine what a good performance would "look like" on the day, and to visualise themselves in that situation and doing those things that result in good performance, makes them more likely to actually achieve good results.

A tendency for many "performers" - whether athletes, public speakers or exam-sitters - is to spend a lot of time imagining things that could go wrong, and focusing on how to avoid them.

The mental rehearsal approach flips that tendency on its head - and instead focuses on what excellence would look like, and imagining yourself in that state of "flow".

4. Practice like it's the real thing

I know, we already talked about the necessity of preparing well. But this point about realistic practice is worth emphasising for a few reasons.

Studies have found that having to process several new pieces of information at once can seriously undermine performance. In the context of exams, this means that if you go into your exam unfamiliar with the process, the interface, the constraints, the structure of the exam - your mind is going to be pulled in several different directions at once and your focus on the task at hand is diminished.

This is one of the reasons structured, exam-like practice is crucial for many students. Familiarising yourself with past exams, practising under timed-conditions in an exam simulator, understanding how the exam flows - all of this reduces the potential for distraction and disorientation on the day of the exam.

And this then opens the path to laser focus, and to a feeling of calm as you enter a "familiar" situation.

VIVA's online CIMA courses include mock exams prepared by subject experts, which you can practice on a CIMA exam simulator just like the real CBE (Computer Based Examination). These exams have a track record of correctly anticipating the topics that come up on the actual day of the exam! ("The mock exam is what was tested on exam day! Very impressed." - David Maake, OCS May22 Student).

5. Practice cognitive defusion

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Sounds complicated, but it's actually relatively straightforward. Cognitive defusion is about stepping back from your thoughts and observing them. Think of it as follows:

Most of the time you identify with your thoughts. Your thoughts lead you down certain paths and you simply follow where they lead without a second... thought!

Cognitive defusion is about undoing that "fusion" of you with your thoughts. Recognising that you can step back from thoughts that occur to you, observe them, and decide how to respond.

Studies have found that, when it comes to negative thoughts before public speaking or athletic performance, cognitive defusion has proven very effective at calming nerves and improving performance (even more effective than positive affirmation!).

Now we're not saying you need to become a meditation expert! But cognitive defusion is an element of effective meditation. It just happens to be a very practical element for your purposes.

So when you find negative thoughts creeping in in the lead up to exam day, simply step back and say to yourself (for example): "I'm having the thought that I might forget this piece of information on exam day".

What this does is it reminds you that this is just a thought, and that you don't have to follow it down the path to imagining all sorts of associated scary and negative outcomes. Instead, you can take control and decide to simply let that thought come and then go without further negative effects.

From there, you can return to focusing on the positive visualisations and affirmations (again, see above) that will help you execute on exam day.

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