In the days of the Roman Empire, Nero was having a circus in the Coliseum. A brave warrior was thrown to a hungry lion. The wild beast pounced on him as the spectators cheered. However, the warrior quickly whispered something in the lion’s ear and the beast backed away in horror. After this happened several times, the emperor sent a centurion to find out what magic spell could make a ferocious lion cower in fear. After a few minutes the guard came running back and said, “The Warrior whispers in the lion’s ear, ‘After dinner, you will be required to say a few words.'” Human communication remains one of the areas where difficulties and problems are most likely to arise and cause grief. Apart from sleeping and breathing, communicating with those around us represents one of our primary activities. It begins before we are born and ends when we have taken our final breath (Lucien Auger in Communiques 1986). So how do we control our nervousness when we need to stand before an audience to present our thoughts and ideas?
Although nervousness is natural, most people view nervousness as the biggest obstacle to speaking effectively. Nervousness occurs whenever you are under stress–it is a natural, physiological response. When faced with a challenging situation, your nervous system produces adrenaline, which provides the extra energy you need to meet the challenge.
In other words, nervous energy is energy, this is one of the most important resources a speaker can have. Even the most accomplished speakers report being nervous while speaking. However, once they learn to control nervousness, it is no longer a problem, turning instead into enthusiasm and excitement.
The following techniques may help you control nervousness before and during your talks. The techniques that work best for you will depend on your own personal style. Try any that sound interesting. Practice using the techniques that help.
Put the spotlight where it belongs.
Nervousness can get out of hand when you start thinking of yourself as being in the spotlight. “There’s so much at stake.” “I’m not a good enough speaker to handle this.” “I don’t know enough about the topic.”
The more you focus on the fact that you are in a stressful situation, the more adrenaline your body will produce and the more nervous you will become. To break this cycle, change your focus. Instead of thinking about your own performance, focus on your listeners and what you want to tell them. Focus on making your speech valuable from their point of view.
One of the best ways to feel in control of a situation is to know that you are thoroughly prepared for it. Take as much time as you can to prepare your message. Know what you want to accomplish. Find out about your listeners. Anticipate questions. Know your facts.
If you will use any equipment (PowerPoint, overhead projector, DVD, etc.), test it before you give your talk. Make sure it works and you know how to use it.
Effective, confident speakers have developed their skills through practice. You can do the same.
Practice speaking in front of a mirror or with an audience of friends. Better yet, have someone videotape you while you are speaking. Then watch the videotape. When people watch themselves objectively, they are frequently surprised by how confident they appear.
Do not shy away from opportunities to speak–think of them as chances to hone your speaking skills. The more often you speak in front of groups, the better you will become at controlling your nervousness.
Release tension before you speak.
There are a number of things you can do right before speaking to keep nervous energy from getting the better of you:
Exercise. Physical activity can help you vent nervous energy. Make a point of exercising the day before–or the morning of–your talk.
Breathe deeply. Take a deep breath, hold it in for several seconds, and exhale slowly. Repeat this process several times. Breathe through your nose so your mouth does not dry out.
Press your hands together. Before you speak, press the palms of your hands together for a few seconds, release, and repeat a few times.
Stretch your neck. Rolling your head slowly in a circle will help relax your vocal cords.
Maintain control while you speak.
The following are typical symptoms of nervousness and some ideas for how to approach them.
Your mouth gets dry. Keep water (room temperature) with you while you are speaking–especially if you are giving a long presentation.
You forget your next point. Remain composed. Even if your audience notices, it will not make them uncomfortable unless they see that you are having difficulty. Simply take a moment to look down at your notes. If it makes you more comfortable acknowledging that, you have lost your place, you can say, “Let me check my notes to see where I want to go next.”
Your face turns red. When your face turns red, do not make the problem words by focusing on it. Instead, focus your attention away from your face, toward your feet. Focus on keeping your feet planted squarely on the floor and your eyes on the people you are speaking to.
Your hands shake. Make an effort to keep your gestures slow and controlled. When you are not gesturing, make a fist for a second or two and then relax your hand–this will keep it from shaking. If you need to hold a piece of paper and you know your hands tend to shake, put the paper on a clipboard. Your hands will shake less when you are holding something sturdy.
Effective presentations and interviews are accomplished through careful planning and analysis, focus on the purpose, analysis your audience, carefully construct your speech and the anticipated questions with answers and most importantly, practice and project an image of confidence, openness and competence.