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Public Speaking Nerves

One of the questions I’m asked most often is: how do I control my public speaking nerves? I often answer with a question: why do you want to control your public speaking nerves? The reaction is almost always one of initial hesitation followed by introspection and eventually doubt. Do you really want to control your nerves?

Feeling nervous when facing an audience is as natural and desirable as feeling nervous when proposing to your fiancée, taking an exam or performing a dance or a song: you’re nervous because you care, because you want to do a good job and because you’ve invested time and effort preparing for the occasion. All good reasons to be nervous. Remember, your audience wants you to do well, they’re as human as you are and showing some nerves will make you more likeable and believable. A complete lack of nerves (can) make you come across as artificial, untrustworthy, too slick, too polished. So, let’s get this clear: public speaking nerves are good for you, good for your speech and your performance. Next time you’re nervous, tell yourself: Great! I am nervous! And stand up and deliver knowing that showing your nerves makes you more credible.

PUBLIC SPEAKING NERVES ARE GOOD FOR YOU!!

You may be thinking…Hang on a second…My nerves make my voice shaky, make my hands shaky and make my delivery patchy, hesitant and unconvincing. How on earth are those signs helping me?? It’s important to make a distinction (and this is my second key point in this article) between good nerves and bad nerves. Good nerves do all the wonderful things I listed earlier, bad nerves don’t and, yes, they need to be managed. Please, note that I deliberately don’t use the word ‘control’ because control is illusory, especially when it comes to the human nervous system. Managing is more realistic and more effective. Start by acknowledging them and, once you have, there are 3 actions you can take to keep calm and carry on:

  1. Stop and breathe: a 3-second injection of air into your lungs, abdomen and circulatory system will ease some of the pressure you’re feeling, will help you avoid excessive and unwanted speech acceleration and will help your audience cope too. An inspiration + expiration pause will tell your brain: ‘it’s alright, we’re still here, nobody has died and nothing stops me from succeeding today’.
  2. Smile: smiling will make you feel good, will make your audience feel good and will release endorphins and other ‘substances’ that keep your system balanced (including your voice and hands). Smiling also tells your audience that you’re having a good time, they’re therefore having a good time and whatever signs of nerves they noticed have now been supplanted by the impact of your charming white teeth.
  3. (If still necessary) move a little: stretch your hands and legs by using them while you speak. Such movements (whether it’s walking up and down or gesticulating to support a point) will release some of the tension you’re feeling on your throat, stomach and shoulders and will make you more relaxed and your speech more fluid. Approach this one with care, too much movement can exacerbate your nerves or distract your audience’s attention from your message. How much and when to move comes to you more naturally with practice and experience so don’t worry too much about it at the beginning, just try it and find what works for you.

SMILING WILL MAKE YOU FEEL GOOD, WILL MAKE YOUR AUDIENCE FEEL GOOD

So let’s recap the 2 key points so far: 1) nerves are good, embrace and acknowledge them and 2) there are three easy techniques to keep then in check.

Third point in this written monologue of mine: if your nerves are too visible, too unpairing, too much in the way of you succeeding and performing well, there is possibly a hidden, parallel symptom that has nothing to do with speaking in public and needs to be addressed outside the ‘speaking room’. The most obvious is therapy: resort to a psychologist or a therapist that can help you identify the root of the problem. Yoga, meditation and mindfulness are also very effective and valid practices (not just for public speaking nerves); they will help with posture, breathing and visualization (prior to any speech or presentation) and will provide yourself and your delivery with an aura of ‘zen happiness’. Whatever it may be, reach out to others and speak about it openly; frequently, solutions to problems are found just by talking about them; coaching can also be a very helpful approach.

A final thought. In addition to everything I’ve said so far, there’s a recurrent cause of nerves for all humans when speaking in public: lack of preparation. You haven’t invested the required amount of preparation needed to perform with confidence and such lack is showing through nerves. This one has an easy solution: it’s what I call the PPP rule = Prepare, Prepare, Prepare / Practice, Practice, Practice / Play, Play, Play (an important part of the preparation process before you speak is to know the venue/room where you will be speaking and your audience too; the more familiar you are with the venue and the more you know about the audience the less nervous you will feel).

Disappointing as the need for good nerves may be, the reality is that, Yes, You Can manage them and some of the ideas in this piece will help you begin that process. Please, get in touch with your thoughts, ideas and experiences with Public Speaking Nerves by posting a public comment on this article or emailing me on carlos@publicspeakingfor.com . Yes, You Can!

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