Everybody gets nervous. That seems obvious, but did you know that fighting nerves is the worst way to deal with them? So, what are you supposed to do? Well, reading this blog post is a good start! By the end of this article, you should feel better about delivering a good speech or presentation, without looking like a jabbering fool, and without feeling like you might wet yourself at any moment.
I can honestly tell you that about 60% of my students and clients claim to have an irrational fear of speaking in public. And the other 40% are just run of the mill nervous (this type of fear is called “glossophobia” and it is perfectly natural). Everyone gets nervous. Barack Obama gets nervous. Meryl Streep gets nervous. I get nervous (I have just completed a life goal of being included in the same paragraph as Meryl Streep and Barack Obama. Boom!) There will always be situations that make you nervous, so you have to learn to deal with nerves rather than trying to stop nerves altogether.
Why do we get nervous? What’s the point? The reaction is ingrained in us for very legitimate and useful reasons. We talk about this, as well as the many different ways nerves show themselves and how to eradicate nerves altogether, in our online class, so if you want to learn more, sign up here, but in this article, we’re going to keep it simple and stay focused on a few of the ways to fight through the nerves.
The tips we are going to lay out today will not get rid of the nerves, they will just help you manage them so that you can focus on what really matters: the message you are delivering.
OK, so without further ado, here are the tips:
A. Keep things in perspective.
It’s true that being naturally confident, even arrogant, usually means not being quite as nervous, but being humble can also help. Let’s be real for a second: you’re probably not curing cancer with this speech. This speech is probably not world changing or even life altering, so let’s not blow it out of proportion. Look at the situation and realize that this is just one minor blip on your radar. This is not life changing, this is not the most important thing you’ve ever done and this is just a very short time in your life.
I had an executive client a few months ago that had to give a speech at her company’s annual conference. She was petrified and had considered not showing up at all. She was a department leader, a mother, a cross fit enthusiast… she was brave all around, but this situation terrified her. I reminded her of all the things she had done. All of the work, the headaches of managing employees, not to mention giving birth. You’ve cleared some massive hurdles in your life. This is just a simple step over.
“If you can do that, you can do this.”
In short, while you are the person on stage, you are actually not the most important person in the room. You’re the message carrier. Your goal is to deliver a message to the audience. The goal of an audience is to ingest the information and commit it to memory.
The audience is more important than you.
The message is much more important than you.
B. Love your audience.
Many people have a fear of the audience. They think the audience will laugh at them, mock them, maybe even throw tomatoes at them. When was the last time you saw a Ted Talk where an audience behaved badly? What about the audience at the Oscars? No one even laughed at Jennifer Lawrence when she fell on the way to pick up her medal.
The truth is that audiences understand how hard it is to stand up and speak. They WANT you to succeed. They want to be part of something good. They are on your side. So, treat them like your friends and they will be a sea of smiling faces looking back at you (unless of course, you’re giving a eulogy).
C. Know your stuff.
It should go without saying that preparation is key. In fact, I can’t think of many situations in which preparation isn’t important, can you?
Know your material. Know what you plan on saying and know the background on your topic. Practice in front of a group, in front of a mirror, in the car, in the shower. And here’s how you practice:
- Practice from start to finish.
It’s very common for people to practice until they stumble, then go back to the beginning and start again. This way, you end up with a strong, well-practiced start and a weak, limp end. Trust me, a limp end is the worst! 😉
- Be ready for questions.
Practice answering them. Practice saying, “I’m not sure, but I will get back to you with an answer.”
- Never memorize.
This is a whole topic unto itself, but memorization is the fastest way to crash and burn any speech or presentation.
I mentioned earlier that I still get nervous. Here’s how it feels to me:
Right before I take the stage, I always feel my heart beating like it might explode. I’m super amped and feel like I’ve had twelve cups of coffee (never drink coffee when you’re nervous), I’m usually digging my fingernails into my palms and the sounds around me all sound like the teacher from Charlie Brown is speaking in a tunnel.
Sound familiar? Because it’s normal!
Here’s what I do in the last few minutes to help calm my nerves:
That’s it. I don’t look at notes, I stop pinching myself and I breathe deep, deep breaths in through my nose. If I can breathe out through my mouth without looking like Mr. Ed to the people around me, I will. But I get real quiet and try to breathe myself into being calm.
And then I walk to the stage. Slowly. Carefully.
DURING THE PRESENTATION
Now that you are on stage, you’ll notice that most of the things you can do to tame the nerves are based on managing the physical attributes of your nerves. Everybody’s nerves will manifest themselves in different ways, but the habits of nervous speakers are common to most people, including freezing up, going red, stumbling over words and looking unfriendly. Here’s what to do:
The easiest thing to do up on stage is to stand behind a podium and hold on to it for dear life. It’s amazing that podiums don’t have some kind of steel reinforcement to protect from the death grip of presenter after presenter. This is also the worst thing to do for your nerves.
Imagine this scenario: you are in Ancient Rome. You’re a gladiator. You are about to go into the ring against a tiger.
You’re pretty nervous about this.
You run in and grab the nearest chariot that is sitting on the ground. It’s not attached to a horse anymore, just lying there. You cling to it and cower from the tiger.
And then you’re dead.
OK, yes, your chances of survival weren’t great anyway, but at least if you hadn’t been stuck holding on to the chariot, you could have come up with a better plan.
It’s the same instinct that you face on stage – fight or flight. When you cling on to the podium, something interesting happens to your body. It tenses up, your muscles tense, your jaw tenses, and all of the adrenaline has nowhere to go so it bounces around inside you making you jittery. Move and you’ll notice your heart will calm down a little, the adrenaline will start to be used up and your mouth, feet, and hands will be able to move as normal.
No matter what happens, if you smile, you are more likely to connect with your audience. If you can truly make a connection to the audience, you could give a speech about quantum physics while lying down in your pajamas and still be successful. (I’m not recommending you try this.)
C. Keep going
I’ve been on stage before and felt the heat start rising up my chest, knowing that the splotchy redness is climbing up my neck and onto my face. You know what I did about it? Nothing. This might not happen to you. Maybe it’s a teeth chattering or a stutter for you. Whatever it is, once you are on stage, there’s not much you can do. If you have already done all of the above and it still happens, then just keep going and it will most likely go away. But don’t point it out, don’t dwell on it and don’t let it beat you. Just keep going.
Here’s the thing with admitting your nerves on stage: it can be endearing. Cute. But you are not the focus, your speech is. And unless you’re pitching puppies and bunnies, cute won’t cut it. You want credibility. You at least want to appear as if you’ve done this before. And even if you’re going red while you’re doing it, you can pull it off by leaving the audience thinking it’s a normal condition for you!
This won’t work for everyone and it can be dangerous, but another method of busting through nerves is to defer the attention. You could ask for audience participation in order to do this, BUT the danger is that you are giving up the focus and you may not get it back. That would be catastrophic to your speech.
AFTER THE PRESENTATION
Once your speech is done, thank the audience for listening, and move off the stage. You’re ALOMST done!!
But, not quite. There’s only one thing that could sink your whole performance, even if it was perfect.
There is one thing you should never, ever, ever do after giving a speech and that one thing is…
Ask an audience member how it went.
Don’t ask if you did well. Don’t ask if they noticed you messed up. Don’t ask if they could see you go red. Don’t ask a damn thing!!
Even if they tell you it was perfect and you looked great… gorgeous even… and you moved so well and sounded so good, you’ll inevitably find something they said that worries you. And all of a sudden you feel like a loser.
Let yourself be happy it’s done. Tell yourself you’re proud. Give yourself a treat and focus on getting back to anybody that asked questions.
And if, for some reason, you don’t feel good about your performance, set up a free consultation with me. I can always find the good in any presentation and, trust me, I’ve seen a lot of them!
So, what did we learn today?
We learned that being nervous is normal and you don’t fight it, you work with it. We learned there are ways to prepare that will lessen nerves and there are things to do during a performance to help move through the nerves.
Want some homework?
Imagine yourself giving your speech or presentation. Imagine looking out to the audience and seeing someone looking at their phone. You can see another person whispering to their neighbor and another smiling and looking around.
Draw two columns on a piece of paper and list how each of these actions could have a negative meaning in the first column. Now write the potential positive meaning in the other column.
I hope this blog post helps you. If you want to learn more about public speaking and presentations, check out our course. If you have any questions, please ask away in the comments section!
but it doesn’t have to be…