How to Tame Your Nerves When Speaking in Public
Your heart pounds. You breathe faster and harder. You begin to sweat. Your blood pressure increases. Your face gets flush. Your mind seems like it’s going a mile a minute and can’t stop. You forget what you’re going to say. Do any of these happen to you when you speak in public? If so, you’re not alone.
Everyone gets nervous
Every presenter — novice and veteran alike — gets nervous when speaking in front of others. The difference from one presenter to another is how well they manage this anxiety. While some do not know why this happens to them, others understand why it is happening and how to turn this nervous energy into positive enthusiasm.
Why speaking can be so stressful
Following is a simplified but sufficient explanation of what happens when you are going to speak in public. Your brain’s primary objective is to protect you — to keep its organism alive and healthy. It’s always on the lookout for things that may harm you. When it senses a stressful situation, it kicks into gear.
Speaking in front of others, according to the brain, is a stressful situation. Why? Well, to explain this, let’s enter Mr. Peabody’s WAYBAC machine and travel back 400,000 years or so — back to the caveman days.
You’re kicking back in your cave, drawing crude pictures of animals on the walls. That new-fangled thing called fire is outside the opening of your cave. All of a sudden, you hear a noise at that opening. You look to see what’s happening. There stands your tribe, and immediately you know you’re in trouble. Odds are you did something to upset them, and they will either banish you from the tribe or kill you. Either way, your life expectancy is relatively short.
If it’s not your tribe at the entrance, it’s another tribe. Again, your future looks bleak. And if it’s not people but wild animals, well, you get the idea. As a result, the brain has evolved over the centuries, believing that eyes looking at you might be a stressful, if not dangerous, situation.
When your brain, specifically the limbic system, senses stress, it sends signals to various parts of your body, including your adrenal glands. They immediately send adrenaline through your system, getting you ready for fight or flight. What are the effects of this? Your heart pounds. Your breathing gets quicker. You begin to sweat. Your blood pressure increases. Your face gets flush. Your mind resembles a spinning roulette wheel. Sound familiar?
But what about forgetting what you were going to say? What does this have to do with fight or flight? Well, two things are happening in our brains. As your flight or flight response kicks in, the part of your brain responsible for memory doesn’t function as highly. Why should it? You don’t need memory to fight or run, just muscle memory.
The other thing that happens under such circumstances is that your brain makes sure you are acutely aware of what is happening around you. In a fight or flight situation, you need to be mindful of your surroundings, so you have a higher likelihood of success. In the case of public speaking, this isn’t necessarily helpful. This awareness often leads us to be overly conscious about people looking at us, what they are doing, and even what they might be thinking.
All this is happening as you’re about to present. Yet you stand there and don’t fight the people looking at you, nor do you turn around and run. The limbic system doesn’t understand, so it demands that your adrenal glands secrete additional adrenaline. And so on.
Learning to deal with it
The first step to dealing with your fear of public speaking is understanding that it’s normal. The next step is to realize there is a tremendous difference between fear and danger, and by no means are you in danger when speaking in public. The third step is a change in mindset, i.e., you don’t have to share information with others; you get to share your information.
Let’s dissect the last statement above. Although public speaking is always all about the audience, most people who fear public speaking say things like, “What if I make a mistake.?” “I hope I don’t forget what I am going to say.” “I hope I do a good job.” “What if they don’t like me?” “I hope they listen to me.” “I hope they think I’m funny.” See a pattern here? I, I, I, me, me, I. The focus is in the wrong place. How could even the most experienced speaker deal with that kind of self-imposed pressure?
The mere fact that you are the one delivering a presentation is fantastic. There is a reason that you were chosen to give the presentation. You didn’t win a lottery; you earned the opportunity to present. Be proud that you get to share your knowledge, experience, or vision. Take the onus off yourself and focus on the audience.
Before you speak
Whether you are incredibly nervous or not, there are several things you can do before you speak that help prepare your mind and body. Not all are going to appeal to you, and that’s okay. Take those that work for you, possibly experimenting with the others now and again.
Let’s start with diaphragmatic breathing, otherwise known as deep breathing or cleansing breaths. It’s a powerful tool. Deep breathing helps calm your nerves. But keep in mind a couple of cautions. One is not to hold your breath. Holding your breath when breathing this way does more to tense your body than to help it relax. The other is to exhale slowly. Quickly exhaling might make you lightheaded.
Meditation is another technique many people use to help with their speech anxiety. Benefits include lowering your blood pressure, improving blood circulation, lowering your heart rate, reducing perspiration, and slowing your respiratory rate.
Regular exercise benefits speakers in many of the same ways meditation does. I know some speakers who run a couple of miles just before speaking.
Some speakers — I’m one of them — go through rituals before speaking. These routines help you get in the proper frame of mind. When possible, I walk, even if it’s in a small area where I can only pace back and forth. And whether I can walk or not, I practice diaphragmatic breathing and visualize my opening and ending. Then, just as I’m about to start speaking, I perform a brief ritual that’s so quick and obscure, no one ever notices.
Even my wife has a ritual that she practices every time I’m going to speak. Many years ago, she put a note in my bag. It read, “Knock ’em dead!” That evening was perhaps my breakthrough talk. Ever since, whether I’m speaking on stage or training in a corporate setting, she slides a similar note in my bag. I’m not sure what I’d do without them.
If you follow sports, you see rituals taking place all the time. Think of the batter in baseball who tightens their batting gloves or takes the same number of warm-up swings between pitches. Would they be any less capable without these idiosyncrasies? Of course not. Would their heads be in the right place without them? Maybe … maybe not. Call them rituals; call them routines; call them superstitions. If they work, they work.
Visualization is another technique you can borrow from athletes. Just like a sprinter visualizes herself crossing the finish line first, you can picture yourself grabbing everyone’s attention with your opening words. You can see in your mind people making eye contact and nodding their heads as you speak. You can visualize yourself delivering a compelling closing that impacts or inspires your listeners. Try it. It’s highly effective.
The magic pill
It seems as if the majority of people hope to discover that elusive magic pill that will help them get over their nerves. Of course, we all know that there is no such thing as a magic pill, or is there? I believe there is. I’ve seen it work too often to think otherwise. In fact, back when I was so nervous that I was nearly paralyzed with fear, it worked for me.
However, if you’re like most people, you won’t want to take this pill. Just thinking about it will be as foul-tasting as the thought of swallowing a teaspoon of cod liver oil. So what is this potent pill? Rehearsing. If you want to have more confidence … if you want to be more comfortable as you’re about to speak … if you want to stop feeling such dread when you think about speaking in public … rehearse, rehearse, rehearse your presentations.
Now, if you believe that rehearsing makes your presentation looked rehearsed, then you’re not rehearsing enough. Take a cue from stage actors. They rehearse until their performances appear natural. They get to know their material so well that they can relax and communicate with their audiences on all levels. To be calm and confident when you’re presenting, rehearse until the content comes naturally.
But there’s still a problem
I’ve spoken with people who say they have taken all the suggestions above and still cannot sleep the night before their presentations. This is unfortunate but understandable. You see, your brain dislikes the unknown. Consequently, your brain may not let you rest if you aren’t familiar with the location or don’t know when you’re going to speak. Solve these and any other mysteries, and you’ll be more likely to get that highly beneficial good night’s sleep.
What not to do
Now that you know some of the things you could do, here are a few things you don’t want to do.
Try not to procrastinate. Nothing good can come from it. You may think you’re delaying the apprehension that comes with preparing for a presentation, but you’re adding to it. Furthermore, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. By not giving yourself time to develop your message and rehearse your delivery, you’re simply ensuring that it won’t go as well as it could.
On the day of the event, you’ll do well to avoid caffeine. Why? Because you want to calm your body and mind, and caffeine does the exact opposite. I get it; you’re afraid that you won’t have sufficient energy if you don’t have your usual morning coffee. Please don’t give it another thought. Your adrenaline will provide you with all the energy you’ll need.
Avoid sugary items, such as candy, on the day of your presentation. They could give you a sugar rush just as you’re striving to calm your body and mind, or you might experience a sugar crash just as you’re about to speak.
Speaking of sugar, do you know what metabolizes into sugar? You got it, alcohol. Therefore, avoid alcohol the night before and the day of your talk.
I wouldn’t think I’d have to add this, but … do not drink alcohol just before speaking. I know the argument for doing so — it helps calm your nerves. Really? Then let me ask you this. If your surgeon was nervous before operating on you, would you want them to knock back a couple of shots of vodka right before asking for the scalpel?
You’ve got this
Public speaking is an art based on science, and that means you can tame your nerves, overcome your apprehension, and share your knowledge, experience, and ideas with others.