It is the most common request a speaking coach gets: “Can you please help me to not be nervous in front of an audience?” And the honest answer is, “No.” Famous singers Rihanna, Beyonce and Harry Styles all admit to a level of nervousness that makes them physically ill. Adele once said, “One show in Amsterdam, I was so nervous I escaped out the fire exit.” Actress Emma Watson has described it as “a kind of paralysis.”
So, if professional performers suffer anxiety like this, what hope is there for the rest of us? Don’t despair. While it may be impossible to eliminate nervousness, you can transform ‘bad’ nerves into ‘good’ nerves. Here are some hints that I have used over thirty years of coaching – so I know they work.
1. Stop trying to avoid the unavoidable
Just before they take the stage, most speakers have a head full of unrealistic wishes – dreams that are destined to be dashed. They hope they won’t have a ‘mind blank’ or lose their way. They probably will – then they will spend the rest of their presentation regretting it. Instead they should remind themselves of these facts:
• Most mind blanks last for less than two seconds (although it seems much longer when you’re up there). This means that most audience members won’t even notice it – or, if they do, they’ll think you’re pausing for effect.
• Checking your notes to prompt your memory or get yourself back on track does not compromise your presentation. It adds to your credibility because it shows you are prepared and have taken time beforehand to organize your thoughts. The audience is judging your credibility on your subject – not your memory. So, prepare your notes clearly so you can prompt yourself when this happens.
2. Understand your nervousness
Speaking to a group should make you feel nervousness because it’s taking up people’s important time. The time that speakers get most unsettled is when the nervousness catches them by surprise. They think, “I expected to be nervous, but I didn’t expect to be THIS nervous!” Experience has shown that we all have a particular audience that makes us feel more anxious than others. It might be friends, strangers, family, peers, superiors or subordinates. Get to know which group it is for you so it won’t catch you by surprise.
3. Control what you can
Many speakers say the worst feeling is being ‘out of control’ – with everyone watching. Standing in front of an audience will trigger the release of adrenalin. You have no control over this and it may result in speaking too fast, uncoordinated movements, quavering voice, shortness of breath, dry mouth, blushing, sweating and a myriad of other unfortunate symptoms. There are deliberate actions you can take to counteract this – to put yourself back in control. Settle yourself with deep breathing before you speak, slow yourself down with a more measured deliberate walk to your speaking position and have water nearby to sip if your mouth goes dry.
4. Stop trying to please everybody
Okay, this might not count when you’re giving a wedding toast, but in business presentations, if you modify your speech to say only what everyone agrees with it will be so bland that no-one will want to listen. Putting an alternative point of view and backing it up with a strong argument will always be more engaging than wishy-washy platitudes.
5. You don’t have to be the expert in the room
Some speakers convince themselves that to speak about a subject they must be the most expert in the room on that subject. Not so. Don’t try to play the expert. You have unique experiences and perspectives on the subject that provide valuable insights. This is your gift to the audience.
Nervousness when speaking to an audience is natural. Stop trying to avoid it and use these hints to make it work for you.
Kevin is an experienced conference speaker, workshop leader, facilitator, and MC.
He speaks at conferences and seminars across Australia, New Zealand, Asia and in the UK specializing in the areas of sales, negotiation skills, humor in business and communication skills. He has co-authored eleven books on communication skills and humor in business. His articles are regularly printed in major daily newspapers in Australia and Asia.
Kevin is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) which is the highest possible level in professional speaking and the only one recognized internationally. He is a Past National President of Professional Speakers Australia. He has been inducted into the Australian Speakers Hall of Fame.