Public Speaking Tips for Nerves
When dealing with nerves in Public Speaking, probably the correct attitude is to learn to handle nerves rather than try to overcome nerves. The old Sun Tzu saying of:
‘Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer’ applies here.
Not that your nerves are your enemies: not at all.
They are more like friends - who could betray you!
Treated well, respected and understood, nerves are what give your presentation enough energy to carry your message through to the audience; without them you can seem flat and uninspired.
Trying to overcome or lose your nerves can mean that you can temporarily lose sight of them, only for them to suddenly overwhelm you when you don’t expect them.
My greatest lesson in the effect of nerves came when I was studying the cello in the former East Germany.
The teaching was very systematic and thorough, as you might imagine and my teacher was very keen to make sure that no pupil was overexposed beyond their technical ability.
My experience in England had been that many teachers were very happy for you to splash around in a piece of music that was technically much too difficult. A bit like a sportsman or woman should build up strength and resistance over time, my German teacher wanted me only to perform pieces that were safely within the range of my ability. I misunderstood the purpose of the approach. I thought that the aim was to be so comfortable with the piece of music that I would not need to feel nervous. All went well until one performance when I sat down, convinced I had reached the promised land of playing without nerves.
I noted how relaxed and confident I felt and started to play, only to be suddenly overwhelmed with a wave of nerves. My bow shook, my fingers went weak and the performance was disastrous.
A simple lesson, brutally dealt!
No nerves = big danger.
Having now over time analysed a lack of nerves in Public Speakers, I have realised that more often than not a person speaking without any sense of anxiety inside (how they appear outside is another matter) can reveal a couple of worrying tendencies.
If you are not at all nervous, it would suggest one of two things:
(i) You don’t really care that much about what you are doing
And remembering one of my favourite American ‘one-liners’
‘Attitudes are contagious, is yours worth catching?’
if you are not enthusiastic about what you are talking about, that lack of energy will transmit itself to your audience. Think of a curator at a museum who has delivered the same tour day after day for many years.
The knowledge is there, the facts are being transmitted, but the sense of boredom is also being transmitted and the chances are at the end of the tour, most of the words will be forgotten and only a sense of the attitude that delivered them will remain.
You should have a sense of responsibility to your audience. If your message is not important enough to you for you to feel a little anxious about making sure it gets across, it suggests you don’t really care.
Hence another of those one-liners:
‘Passion on fire is always better than knowledge on ice.’
(ii) It is all about you!
Watch a narcissist politician or leader (and these days there seem to be plenty of them around wearing the ‘populist’ mantle) and there does not seem to be a large amount or nerves, (or for that matter, shame or self-criticism either).
They feel they can break the rules, because they seem to see themselves as above the common rules. Their opinions become facts to them, simply because that is what they choose to believe. One way this has a negative effect on their Public Speaking is apart from the moral question of ‘subjective truth’, their presentations can tend to be long and rambling.
Why? – because the purpose of their speaking is all about them and not about the message.
A person with a few nerves will probably have the humility, self-awareness and understanding of the feelings of their audience to do their best to make sure the message is delivered clearly, quickly and with the listener in mind.
Hence Woodrow Wilson’s
‘Be brief. Be brilliant. Be gone.’
And my point is, you cannot be a ‘brilliant’ speaker, without some nervous energy.
After all, the brightest stars burn a lot of energy!
10 tips for overcoming nerves
Embrace your nerves
This is largely summed up in the words above. Recognise that nerves are a necessary part of a good performance. They will give you energy, focus and if they inspire you to get the job done and get back off stage as quickly as possible, your audience will love you!
Prepare your presentation
Fairly obvious maybe, so this is a special note to the procrastinators out there. Maybe it is because we are anxious about having to present that there can be a tendency to put off the evil moment of preparation. However there is one evil moment that cannot be put off and that is the moment you are required to walk out and deliver your talk:
therefore plan backwards. Give yourself plenty of time to work out the key message of your presentation and plenty of time to plan it, then plenty of time of run through it and change it and time for it to settle in your mind. I know that in my case there comes a moment when a presentation shifts in my head from a lot of words and ideas to a clear structure and sections that flow naturally into each other.
We are all different. We all have different ways to prepare ourselves and what is right for me might not be right for you. Some people like to be distracted until a few minutes before they speak, so they might read a book, chat with a friend play on their phone – anything to get their mind off what is coming later.
I like to be left alone in my thoughts. I have a wonderful friend, an excellent speaker, who would accompany me if I was involved in a competition or at a significant event.
I remember entering a venue with her and I saw a man I knew approaching me with a big beaming smile. Normally he would be lively entertaining company, but that was not what I needed at that moment, so I said to me friend:
‘Your job is to keep people away from me – starting with him!’
Not very social, but that is what I needed at that moment
We may be getting a little bit ‘positive-mental-attitudey’ here.
However, some of us have a well-developed tendency to ‘catastrophise’.
A friend told me recently that for her daughter’s wedding her husband seemed to be running all the scenarios of what could go wrong. Preparing for eventualities is good, but there comes a moment when all you are doing is filling your head with Angst.
If you have the opportunity to visit a venue, training room or boardroom, before you need to deliver your presentation, take the chance to stand where you are going to stand, visualise the room with its audience, rehearse the opening moments of your speech either in your head or out loud and maybe even play your imaginary film to the end and hear the positive applause, see the impressed faced, and feel your satisfaction.
To some of us that may feel a little forced and unnatural. All I would say to counter that is that we seem to find it quite natural and acceptable to sit on the train imagining how everything could go wrong!
Again we are all different. You may want to run through your speech in front of a friend or colleague.
You may want to do it alone. You may want to run it through again and again until you are required to go on stage. My personal advice is when it comes close to the moment of delivery, don’t try to run the whole speech in your head, because if you get mixed up it could cause you to panic and lose composure before you have even started. Therefore my suggestion is just to run the opening moments again and again.
As you get nearer to the moment you might feel you nerves increasing, so running those opening moments is a good way of experiencing the heightened nervousness and giving yourself the confidence of knowing that you can start well.
Back to the ‘positive mental attitude’
Just as ‘over-catastophising’ is not going to help your mental state, having that little person sitting on your shoulder telling you this could all be a disaster and how you messed it up last time and that you were never cut out for this, try to find a more positive Angel to sits on your other shoulder to say encouraging things.
Once again this might feel unnatural, but we do seem to have this idea that to pre-play disaster is being realistic, and to pre-play success is self-deluding fantasy. You may have to feed your Angel the lines to say and practise them in your head, but the success of your presentation could well hinge on which of those two voices is louder and which one you choose to listen to most.
Nerves usually mean ‘rushing’, ‘fast’, ‘skittish’. Therefore take a few moments before you start to consciously slow down. Concentrate on your breathing. Breathe in deeply and breathe out for longer than you breathe in and stop your mind darting all over the place, simply focus on air in and air out and even count as you do so (in for seven, out for ten – depending of course on how fast you count!)
Take your eyes off yourself
The main burden of our nerves derives from being too focused on ourselves. Therefore try to get your eyes off yourself and onto your audience and more specifically onto your message. I like to remind myself that if my house was on fire, my only aim is to get everyone out of the house. I am not so worried about whether I look good or sound good saying it!
No one is perfect
Probably the greatest hurdle to get over is the belief that there is somehow, somewhere a perfect presentation that we are aspiring to. Public Speaking is a messy business, it never quite turns out as you expect. So banish all thought of perfection – it does not exist. Can you get your message across? That is all that really matters. ‘Perfect’ is once again a little bit too much about you. Getting your message across is more about them.
And do you know what?
Your audience does not even care that much about whether you are nervous, they just want to get something out of it for themselves.
Like a tennis player, the only thing you can control at the beginning of the game is your serve; how the ball comes back to you is no longer completely in your control. So particularly in those final moments before you start, run your opening lines, visualise you saying your opening lines beautifully, tell yourself that they will be great. If you start well you will make a strong positive impression on the room and you will give yourself that little bit of extra confidence to continue.