Public speaking: 10 tips to handle your nerves
We all get nervous about public speaking. As the moment approaches, our stomach bubbles and fills us with dread. Terrifying thoughts flit through our mind “What if I forget everything?”; some of us will tremble, and stars will dance at the edges of our vision – as if we might at any moment pass out.
You will be pleased to hear that there are some simple and effective strategies which can help you handle your nerves, and the more comfortable you are, the more often you’ll do it, and the better you’ll get. You don’t need to eradicate the nerves (speakers who don’t get at least a little bit nervous aren’t that much fun to listen to), but to harness them. Part of that is consciously re-interpreting your racing pulse as excitement, rather than nervousness. The more in control you are of your mental state, the better your talk will be, and the easier your life will get.
Here are some other deviously effective tips:
Get there early
Turn up long before you have to speak. You won’t be rushing and worrying about being late, still high on adrenaline when it’s time to talk. Just as arriving at a party early will make us feel more comfortable, getting to the room or hall early will make you feel like it’s part of your territory. Get there early, set up, check your slides (if you have any – please, not too many!) and greet your listeners as they arrive. Knowing them will make you feel more comfortable, as if you’re talking to a room full of friends; and it’ll endear them towards you too. They’ll want you to succeed.
Breathe in a way that calms you down. Not deep breaths, but slow breaths. Breathe out slower than you breathe in, through your nose, into your belly (feel your belly push out when you inhale – it can take some practice, perhaps start now!). Breathing in this way will kick-start your parasympathetic nervous system. It will wash away the adrenaline, slow your heart rate, and calm you down. You’ll feel more relaxed, and when you speak from your gut, you’ll sound calm and authoritative, too.
Know your subject
This sounds obvious – but instead of just knowing everything about what you’re going to say, try to learn more. If there are any bits in your talk that you’ve wondered about, research them. Call someone, and ask them questions. The fuller your understanding, the more relaxed you’ll feel; and you’ll be better at going ‘off script’ and answering unexpected questions. Learn everything you can about what you’re saying, and then chat through it with a friend or workmate. Encourage them to ask questions and challenge you (which will help probe areas you might not have thought about).
Be funny, fast
Laughter really is the shortest distance between two people (thanks Victor Borge). When you make people laugh, they’ll relax and feel happy in one another’s company, and they’ll like you more. Hearing their laughter will also help you relax. Laughter has a similar of nurturing familiarity, like greeting people when they arrive – it’ll make them want you to win.
Don’t try to be funny, let yourself be funny. If you’re going to try anything, try as hard as you can to challenge that awful assumption that humour and professionalism are somehow mutually exclusive (perhaps just notice how keen CEO’s and senior execs are to crack a joke). Crack jokes, just avoid dodgy topics. When you’re getting to know your subject, you may notice some funny quirks about it; and inconsistency, or a peculiar similarity to something we have all experienced. Notice these, and share them in your talk.
Stay open to making more jokes that might occur to you as you talk (as is often the way, we’re funnier in company), and during question and answer time (if there is one – and it’s highly advisable). This is really the art of humour – of responding to situations within the moment, so please, avoid old jokes that everyone has already heard.
Have a clear objective
Know why you’re speaking. Let your audience know why they’re listening. Your talk should have a clear purpose, something that you’re asking people to do. Start your talk with that “I’m going to ask you to…”. It will give people a point of reference, so they can see the relevance to every other thing that you say. Your objective should be active, and immediately do-able. Asking people to ‘consider’ is weak, you can’t tell if they’ve done it, and it’s not very persuasive.
If you can, make your objective something active, and something that you’ll know if people have done, like ‘give me your email address’ or ‘call me’. It’s also an effective tool for persuasion to get people to take a small step towards a larger goal. It might seem pushy, people actually really enjoy getting told what to do. Having a clear objective will also make you feel more relaxed because you’ll know why you’re speaking, and you’ll know whether your speech had the desired effect.
Practice, practice, practice
As soon as you know that you’re going to give a talk, start practicing. Put a structure together, and when you’re in the car or the shower or at home, practice giving your talk. When the big day comes, you’ll be totally comfortable with your material, and you’ll feel excited at the prospect of delivering it well.
Do it differently
Practice is important, but so is variety. While you’re practice, practice, practicing, make sure you’re playing with different ways of describing things. Change the structure around, and do it in different styles (you can even put on voices). This will keep the talk ‘alive’ in your mind, and the more different ways you do it, the more comfortable you’ll feel when it comes time to deliver it. Doing it this way will also make you much more capable of handling interruptions and unexpected questions – because you’ve already practiced disturbing your own flow.
Focus on what you want (and what you did well)
When leading up to a big presentation, thoughts about what might happen will be swimming through your head. You can’t stop them, but you can guide them. Rather than letting yourself focus on what might go wrong, focus on what might go right. If you catch yourself wondering “What if I open my mouth and no words come out?” (a fear which does affect some people so badly it comes true), ask yourself “What is the best way I could possibly say this?” or “What is the best possible result from this talk?” and let yourself daydream, as vividly as possible, about a wide-eyed audience nodding in approval, of being patted on the back, of being showered with praise and promotions and job offers in beautiful parts of the world. These thoughts will be much kinder to your emotional state, and as a result, you’ll probably give a much better talk, making those hopeful daydreams all the more likely to happen.
Once you’ve done your talk, don’t dwell on that bit where you fumbled, or what you forgot to say. Focus on what you did well. That is more than ‘well, I did it’, really pick back over it for the things you said well, the times you made people laugh, and the result you had. With a clear, ‘actionable’ objective, you’ll also be able to tell how effective you were. Focus on the people that you did convince, that did call you up or leave their number or sign that petition. As you are first recalling your talk, you are writing memories of how it went. If you focus on the things that went wrong, you’ll write memories in your mind of being a ‘bad’ public speaker. Focus on what you did well, on what worked, and you’ll remember being a good public speaker (perhaps with one or two ‘points for improvement’).
Find your passion
Even if your talk is about something mundane, find a higher purpose for yourself. For me, it’s about helping people become more confident by growing more skilled at sharing their ideas. The world is huge and confusing, and I believe that people feel the need for certainty when they lack confidence. Giving them confidence and letting them share their ideas will let them bask in uncertainty; using their reason to weigh new ideas, and discard old ones which may be unhelpful. To me, my passion is about driving the progress of humanity – and all life on Earth. As you can see, that’s pretty huge (perhaps even megalomaniacal); but it is exactly the magnitude of that task which pushes me to speak. In the shadow of that enormous task, nerves about making a fool of oneself become petty and fade from your mind.
Find your own passion, make it bigger and bigger and bigger. Find (or create) a relevance to what you’re discussing now – so that even a presentation about ‘our budget for the next quarter’ can be intrinsically linked to your desire to share understanding, to be a good person, or create a happier planet. When you’ve found that passion, speak from that place. It’s impossible to feel nervous if you’re passionate about what you’re saying.
Be careful what you say
There can be a temptation to pre-empt a talk with an explanation about how you aren’t fully prepared, or ‘it’s just an idea’, or offer some other excuse why this might not be everything you expected it to be. Don’t. The words you speak go two ways, out into the universe, and back, into your mind. Each time you hear yourself admit to being ‘really nervous’ or having ‘stuffed up that bit’, you’ll remember it. With those words, you form a sort of social contract with others, which you will subconsciously seek to live up to.
If you’re going to talk about yourself, say nice things. If you can’t manage that, ask questions. Ask people “Was this bit clear?” and “What would you have liked me to do differently?” and “Which was your favourite part?”. People prefer talking about themselves anyway – so rather than indulging the desire yourself, let them indulge theirs. Ask them what they think. And the last, but perhaps most important point for handling your nerves with public speaking is this:
The more you avoid speaking in public, the bigger your fear will become. You’ll seek to justify each decision to avoid it, becoming more and more scared of it, and you’ll miss out on opportunities; job offers, promotions, partners and worst of all: You’ll miss out on opportunities to touch peoples hearts and change their minds.
The more often you speak, the faster your stress levels will normalise (just as the first time you did anything scary, you quickly become experienced and much less afraid). As your body gets used to it, taking the stage will become familiar; and perhaps even enjoyable. You’ll find that you’re more comfortable meeting new people, and you’ll be better at telling stories when you’re just sitting around with friends. With more practice, you’ll also become better at it, and with that developing skill, you’ll become eager to get even better.
Soon, it’ll take more effort to pull you off the stage than to push you onto it.