How Can I Overcome Nerves Before Speaking in Public?
A post from our Presentation Skills blog
Written by John Boddington
It is perfectly natural to feel nervous before speaking in public. After all, it is an experience that is generally out of ordinary. In our everyday lives we are not in the habit of holding forth to large numbers of people who are strangers; we are not used to being the centre of attention for long periods of time; we are not aware, when we speak informally, of the attention being focused solely on us. That is, most of us are not used to this degree of attention.
Certainly, there are some for whom public speaking is a way of life: people such as politicians, activists, lawyers, comedians and performers, to name but a few. Do these people never feel nervous? They do, but they have evolved strategies to overcome their nerves and they employ them as a matter of course.
In this article we hope to give some practical advice to those of you who experience the dry mouth, the thumping heart, the sweaty palms and all the other unpleasant symptoms that your nervous system uses to try and make you run away when faced with something as daunting as public speaking. The techniques mentioned here are simple to do, but they will see you through your nerves and into the midst of your speech, where you will hopefully be able to start to enjoy yourself.
When you feel nervous before a speech, your body is experiencing its primordial fight-or-flight reaction and adrenaline is being produced in unusually large quantities so that you can run faster or hit harder. A side effect of this adrenaline is shallow, rapid breathing, coupled with a thumping heart. If you consciously and deliberately force yourself to breathe deeply and slowly, then the panicky sensation brought on by the adrenaline can be quelled. Your brain will also feel the benefits of the oxygen which you are pulling in.
Deep and regular breathing is one of the best ways to bring your thumping heart back under control. It must be regular and steady breathing, not panting, which will make matters worse and might, in extreme cases, make you hyperventilate and faint.
If there is time before you give your speech, then it is worth putting a relaxation technique or two into practice. A simple technique that works well involves you sitting down and then carefully and consciously forcing your body to relax, one part at a time, starting with your toes and working up to the top of your head. You will be surprised to find out how tense you were before you started the exercise and how much you more relaxed you feel after you have completed it. The mind is a powerful thing and we can harness it to help us in all sorts of situations.
Stand up straight
Continuing on the mind over matter theme, this is a way to fool your brain into thinking that everything is all right. Brace your shoulders back, pull your stomach in, stand up straight and beam like a benevolent person. You might feel sick to your stomach and you might be sure that you will never make another coherent sound again in your life, but you don't look it. You look, in fact, like a confident, practiced public speaker ready to do his business. You have the audience fooled, and pretty soon you will have the part of brain that acts instinctively fooled as well. Again, it is a question of mind over matter.
Wet your whistle
Before giving a presentation, always make sure to remain well hydrated. A dry mouth is another side effect of the fight-or-flight reaction and the only way to overcome it is to drink plenty of water. It is generally common practice for a jug of water and a glass to be placed out for any public speaker, but if the authorities don't provide water then take your own glass in with you and place it carefully with the rest of your props. Just before you head on stage, imagine how you will take a sip before moving onto your next point, a fluent master of the art of public speaking. The idea of visualisation brings us onto our next point.
This is not a hollow phrase dreamed up by lifestyle coaches or professional motivators but a valuable way of getting over any ordeal. Put simply, you combat your fears of speaking in public, which your rational mind knows are greatly exaggerated, by imagining the rewards you will gain from a good performance. In your mind you hear the rumble of approval as you make a particularly telling point, or the laugh as you essay a dryly humorous remark that is funny but also insightful. You imagine the applause after your successful speech, and the handshakes and the congratulations. You are baffling your brain again, this time with a species of wishful thinking rather than a confident body posture, but there is no harm in that.
It is a little-known fact that the fight-or-flight centre of the brain is located in the base of the skull. If, however, you have worked yourself up into a state of anxiety before speaking in public, then chances are that the blood has been directed to this area and not to where you want it to be, which is at the front of your brain. You can stimulate the blood to move from one area to another by pressing gently on the bony points of your skull. This may well help you to feel confident and ready to speak.
Do not fear your audience
Your audience do not want you to fail - they are just ordinary people, like you. If anything they want you to succeed. Yes, if you do something spectacularly silly then they might laugh at you, but that's just a normal human reaction. If you say your piece succinctly and make good points, then they will give you a fair hearing. Tell yourself this repeatedly before you go on stage.
Know your stuff
The methods that we have looked at so far are essentially ways of calming your body when it is behaving inappropriately, due to the stimulus of public speaking. However, the best way to overcome your nerves is to know that you are thoroughly prepared and that you have mastered your material. So, it is worth your while to take your time over the writing of your speech or presentation. (If you need some tips on how to create a killer speech, check out our previous blog article, How Can I Build an Effective Presentation?.)
Remember that you are writing something that is supposed to be read out, so read it out loud as you write it. There is no better way of discovering errors and correcting them. You should also find a trusted person and read the speech out to them. If they are baffled by complex sentences, then simplify those sentences until they are clear and memorable. Similarly, if your test audience member feels that they are being talked down to, then you can take the appropriate steps to prevent this from being the case on the day.
Once you have a speech that you know will work then a major cause for anxiety has been removed and you will feel the benefit. Reinforce this anxiety-free state of mind by rehearsing your speech or presentation, getting the nuances right, putting in pauses and breaks. Break the speech down into bullet points or prepare cards with keywords or just commit the whole thing to memory if you so desire, as long as you have it at your fingertips by the day of the presentation.
The ultimate aim of preparation is not to give your nerves a reason to worry about in the first place. Careful planning of the content of your speech, coupled with a thoughtful and reflective analysis of how it comes across before you deliver it in public, will stand you in good stead for being well-received by the audience.
Certainly, good planning alone will not necessarily guarantee that you will feel calm before speaking in public. Nerves are natural in such instances. As we mentioned earlier, the physiological reactions that start your heart pounding are not based on any rational stimulus. They are leftover reactions from times when humans lived among dangerous wild animals. They feel so uncomfortable because they kick in at moments when they are simply not justified. Hence the techniques we mentioned earlier in this article, which are ways of bringing balance back to your system. So, take a deep breath, relax, stand tall, take a sip of water, imagine how good your speech is going to be and then move onto delivering the goods. With any luck, your nerves will fade as soon as you start to earnestly and clearly deliver the body of your speech, and your audience will feel the benefit.
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