Tuesday, July 15, 2014
How to Cope with Nervousness when Speaking Publicly
(Originally published on Yahoo! Voices on December 8, 2011)
It has been said that more people are afraid of public speaking than flying. A sizable percentage would rather die than face an audience. So what can you do to cope with the nervousness that accompanies public speaking?
One of the things to keep in mind when dealing with this subject is that there is no way to completely eliminate nervousness. No matter how much or how often you might be called upon to speak publicly, you will experience a level of nervousness every time. This is a good thing. Think of nervousness as your friend. It is your body's natural response to stress and releases hormones that will help you to think fast and keep you on your toes. It will actually help you to perform better.
But that may seem hard to believe in the moments leading up to the time you walk on stage. So how can you control your reactions to the nervousness so that it works in your favor? How can you make it your friend?
The most important thing you can do is *prepare*. Confidence in your material translates into confidence in yourself. If you believe that what you have to say is important, and even vital, to your audience, you will be more relaxed about presenting it. When determining what you will say, consider your audience: are they businessmen, families, friends? Are they gathered for a specific purpose? Do they share interests? What do they already know about your subject? What do they need to know about it? This will help you to present your material in a way that will hold their attention and from an angle that may be new to them. It is better to work from an outline rather than a text of precisely worded sentences. Your speech will then be more conversational and you will be free to practice audience contact, which we will discuss more of later. You will also be more flexible in your delivery, allowing for mistakes, audience reactions, and the clock. Small notes, such as on index cards, are often easier to consult without distracting your audience. Feel free to use color highlighters on these notes so that a mere glance will suffice to tell you what you need to know.
There is some truth to the old adage that *practice* makes perfect. No, you don't have to grab a hairbrush to mimic a microphone or stand in front of a mirror. Just give your speech from the notes you will have on stage. It might be a good idea to time at least some of these practice sessions, since almost all programs operate on a time schedule. In this way, you will be more confident that you will be able to successfully communicate your material in the time involved. There is no such thing as practicing too much. The more familiar you are with your material the better you will present it. Even if you should discover afterwards that you have no memory of giving the speech due to nervousness, the constant practice will probably mean that you will get through the speech regardless, as if on autopilot.
Once the nervousness begins and grows, it is important to *breathe*. When one is nervous, the breathing shortens and the face and neck muscles tighten. This causes distortion in the voice and can have worse consequences, such as hyperventilation or fainting. Counter all these effects by taking even, slow, deep breaths to regulate oxygen flow and relax the muscles in the face and jaw. You will find that breathing will help to lessen that butterflies-in-the-stomach sensation. It can be beneficial to do this right up until the moment you begin to speak.
Endeavor to have *audience contact*. That means to look at individuals in your audience and establish eye contact with them, if possible. This will turn a mass of humankind into a more personable and comfortable entity. Pick out a few individuals before you begin speaking that are scattered throughout the audience. This will allow you to gauge the reaction of the audience and adjust accordingly. It will also help you relax since the whole process will thus feel more like a conversation than a performance. And your audience may be more interested and receptive due to what comes across to them as a measure of comfortableness, personal interest, and confidence. Audience contact is also important for conveying conviction and excitement about your subject.
*Gestures* serve similar purposes. Without them, it is possible to clutch the podium or table which will only make you tenser and make the audience uncomfortable. But gestures put you both at ease, loosen you up, help you to convey the thoughts and feelings inherent to your material, and drive home your point. If you find it difficult to gesture during a speech, mark out some appropriate places on your notes to remind you to gesture at those points.
*Focus on your material rather than yourself*. The fact is, when you give a speech you are not under examination, your subject is. People will only remember who gave the speech if the material in the speech was relevant and memorable. Knowing this is freeing, in a sense. Remind yourself of this repeatedly if necessary throughout the process from preparation through to your exit.
If you apply these few tips, your nervousness will be a help to you rather than a hinderance and your audience will likely sense nothing but confidence in your delivery. Public speaking can be done, and need not be overwhelming.