Nerves - 3 tips for those opening moments
There is one very important realisation that all speakers reach:
‘Standing up in front of people is stressful!’
Feeling nervous is quite natural.
In fact, I would go as far as to say, if you are not at all nervous about speaking in front of a group of people, that is in itself is slightly worrying, because it would suggest to me that either you don’t care enough about what you are about to say, or else you are much too full of yourself!
And neither indifference nor arrogance is a particularly engaging characteristic for a presenter.
The effect of nerves is likely to be greatest as you start speaking, as those opening words are critical to setting the right tone. It is a typical ‘double whammy’ moment, because it is when you, the presenter, are feeling at your most nervous and self-conscious, and at the same time, your students or audience, are at their most alert and attentive.
On one side, you are standing there, thinking:
‘I am scared. I am not sure I want to be here!’
And on the other side they are thinking:
‘What is this about? Is this going to be interesting? Am I going to be engaged?’
The first words of any presentation need to be able to withstand the intensity of both your nerves and the audience attention simultaneously focused on that one moment.
And if ever there was a clear example of the saying -
‘If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.’
- it is during the opening moments of a presentation.
Having trained as a classical musician, I learnt very quickly that the very first piece of music you choose to play at a recital should be something that is technically well within your ability so that you can use those first few minutes to acclimatise yourself to the room and the enormity of what you are about to do. The best way to reassure your audience and help them feel confident in you is to feel confident in yourself. Therefore: Keep it Simple!
Even so, a frequent mistake that presenters tend to make is to think that, since the opening should come across as easy and straightforward, it will take care of itself. Not so!
The opening is much too important to leave to chance.
It is fine to feel nervous, even petrified, as long as you are able to harness those nerves.
Remember: your audience is less aware of how you ‘feel’ and more aware of how you ‘seem’.
If you seem in control, they think you are in control.
Therefore it is best not to make a hard situation feel even harder by refusing to acknowledge that it is hard in the first place!
Many presenters believe their aim should be to banish all nerves.
Not possible! Probably not even desirable!
The aim should be to face up to those nerves, take control of them, make sure they do not hamper you and then in turn use them to give impetus and energy to your presentation.
It is said that an audience cannot tell the difference between a very nervous presenter and a very enthusiastic presenter.
Luckily for us, to an outsider, they do look very similar!
So you can use it to your advantage while you are standing there thinking:
‘I feel nervous and confused!’
to be aware that your listeners in turn are probably thinking:
‘That speaker looks excited and enthusiastic!’
When I studied the ‘cello, my teacher was very systematic and thorough. Every piece of music was carefully studied and rehearsed. Gradually I moved from playing to the teacher in the lesson to working with a pianist, to performing to other students and then on to a small audience. By the time I got to a larger room, I had been thoroughly prepared. The one time I disintegrated in front of an audience was the day when I had completely misunderstood the purpose of the preparation and I thought to myself:
‘I have played this so many times, I no longer need to be nervous. I am in complete control!’
I sat down, supremely confident, and as I started I was suddenly overcome by a wave of nerves. I could barely hold my bow on the string; it was a major disaster.
It was a traumatic way to learn a simple lesson:
‘Nerves are a necessary part of the performance.’
Over time the aim should be to learn ways to ride or redirect those nerves to your advantage.
If you try to banish nerves, you are always vulnerable, because at any moment they can sneak up and catch you unawares and you might not be able to respond.
Nerves are natural. Nerves are normal. Nerves are your friend!
If you embrace them they will give energy to your presentation and they will project enthusiasm.
Therefore, rather than leaving it to chance or hoping for the best, we need to adopt an opening strategy that helps us function well during those initial stressful moments.
Stack things in your favour by keeping everything simple and avoid overburdening yourself at the beginning with over-complicated words or ideas.
- Put the focus on the right place.
My first suggestion to anyone who says they suffer from excessive nerves is to ask them to take some of the focus off themselves and how they are feeling, and to put it back onto their message.
Remember that the presentation is not actually about you, it is about your audience and what you want to say to them.
2. Keep the structure simple
Secondly, even if the inside of your head feels like it is going through the spin cycle of a washing machine, it is important to be able to hold on to the key message contained in your opening words.
The best response to nervousness is to simplify what you have to say. And if you are still feeling overwhelmed, simplify again. Are you still struggling? Simplify again. If you feel you can survive no more than a maximum of 30 seconds before having to reach for your notes, then that is fine.
If you start the presentation by saying no more than:
‘Today is about….by the end of the session you will….my background is…’
you will already have achieved more in terms of winning the confidence of your audience in those few moments than you would do spending 20 minutes, with your body half turned away from them reading words off a screen, or clutching on to a lectern and robotically droning through a raft of pre-prepared notes.
By using those first few moments well, your audience is more likely to gain a strong first impression and rather than having to work out the purpose of the presentation from a few minutes of unfocused pre-amble, they already have a simple, clear impression of the purpose of the presentation.
3. Keep the words simple.
You can help yourself even further by making sure you simplify your language: therefore avoid difficult words or potential tongue-twisters – anything that might trip you up when you are feeling nervous!
If you fear you might stumble over your first few words, choose easier words to say.
Just as a musician chooses a simple piece for the opening moments of a concert, choose vocabulary that is easy to remember and easy to say.
So rather than saying (should you ever need to!):
‘Today we will be examining the specialism of Otorhinolaryngology’,
you might simply choose to say:
‘Today is all about Ears, Noses and Throats.’
If you find yourself worried that you might be about to fall into a hole, the best solution is to not go too near the edge in the first place!
If the task feels hard, don’t make it harder: just work out what you can do to make it easier.
And that already should start to make you feel more confident!
In conclusion, as you start your presentation:
1. Focus on your audience – keep in mind what will they get from the presentation
2. Keep the structure simple – have a simple overview of what you want to say
3. Keep the words simple – use vocabulary that is easy to say