Discussion – 


How to manage those nerves

I wish I could tell you there was a silver bullet when it came to eliminating nerves.  Unfortunately, the thing about public speaking is that everyone reacts differently, both psychologically and physically.  So, something that works for one person doesn’t work for the next.

However, the news isn’t all bleak.  The goo news is that, in my experience, about 99 percent of clients learn how to manage their nerves relatively quickly.  Even the most nervous speakers can dramatically transform within weeks.

The answer is to approach public speaking nerves from a number of different angles.  In particular, learn how to calm the surge of adrenaline, learn how to alter you mental approach to public speaking, learn how to focus externally and, finally, get in lots of practice. A combination of these approaches is enough for the vast majority of you to finally manage those nerves.

Approach 1: Learn how to put your body in a calm state.

Fear puts your body into fight or flight mode.  This means your body releases adrenaline so you can literally start fighting or running as hard as possible.  Obviously, this response is great if your being chased by a bear but entirely unhelpful when it comes to public speaking because it does things like make you hands shake and throat tighten.

So, our first approach is to limit your body’s response to adrenaline though relaxation techniques.  Relaxation techniques help by controlling your breathing, lowering your heart rate, and lessening the tension in your muscles.

When people are anxious before getting surgery, doctors and nurses often tell them to take slow, deep breaths with long exhalations. It may seem like an inadequate way to quell anxiety, but in many cases, it actually works.

Even today, I find something as simple as taking three big breathes relaxes my body before a big speech.

But here’s the problem.  I personally find relaxation techniques are only of limited help.  When I was younger and really struggling with with public speaking nerves, I found the surge of adrenaline was way too strong for any simple breathing exercise.

I think that’s because you are only dealing with the symptom and not the actual cause of the fear.  Which brings us to approach number 2.

Approach 2: Challenge your beliefs about public speaking

One of the fundamental drivers of public speaking anxiety is the speaker’s belief about their own speaking skills.  If you think you’re bad at speaking, then you’re more likely to be nervous.  If you think you are going to be overcome with nerves, then you are more likely to be overcome with nerves.  It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

This is where cognitive reframing techniques can help.  These techniques target negative self-statements (I am not a good speaker), or irrational beliefs about public speaking (There’s no way I can do this).  Cognitive reframing helps you challenge negative statements and beliefs and replace them with favourable, supportive, and proactive statements.

As a perfect example, think about those nerves that start to creep up on you just before you get on stage.  A struggling speaker might think “oh no, here come the nerves…I’m going to be a mess up there”.  While a seasoned speaker will think “ahh..here comes the adrenaline…my body is getting excited”.  Both speakers are experiencing the same sensation, but interpreting that sensation entirely differently.

Studies have backed up this experience.  When a speaker repeats the matra “I’m nervous” before a speech, they reported higher levels of stress and nerves.  However, when the speaker replaces the mantra with “I’m excited”, the self-reported nerves and performance were significantly better.

Exercises like this teach you to think pragmatically and intentionally about your speech. You are teaching yourself to see public speaking as a non-threatening event that you can learn to handle and to see yourself as a confident speaker-in-progress.

Approach 3: Reframe your focus

Another cognitive approach is to stop thinking about public speaking as a performance.  The problem with performances is that it implies you are being judged by your audience.

Instead, train yourself to see public speaking as an opportunity to actually help people learn something useful.

In other words, stop worrying about how good you look and start worrying about whether or not your audience is learning learning something new.

Switching the focus from yourself to the audience will actually distract you from worrying about yourself!

Approach 4: Prepare, prepare, prepare.

Finally, think about the amount of work actors put into delivering entire scripts in front of audiences. Approaching public speaking the same way will help you shift your focus from worrying to preparing.  The more prepared you are, the more focused on your message and the less distracted by your fear you will be.

A public speaking appearance is only the culmination of a thorough process of preparing and rehearsing your presentation.

The more prepared you are, the less worried you will be about looking nervous, forgetting your lines, or losing your train of thought.

Remember, being underprepared is always more nerve-wracking than being overprepared.

Approach 5: Practice, practice, practice

I have a friend who worked a summer as a tour rep.  At the start of every day, he had to give a little speech to the holidaymakers about some of the actives on offer.

Only a little speech, but he was terrified.  This was way out of his comfort zone and on day one his hands trembled as he gave his little 5-minute talk.

Fast forward 6 weeks later, he was speaking like a professional.  The daily exposure desensitised him to the experience and he could finally start speaking with confidence.

Otherwise known as exposure therapy, his daily repeated talks slowly taught his primitive brain that there was no real threat to giving a speech.

The more experience you get, the more confidence you gain. Finding and creating opportunities to speak gives you the chance to practice what you have learned and get better at it.

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The bottom line is that if something scares you, you will tend to avoid it.  If you avoid it, you will not get enough practice.  When you don’t get enough practice, you will not get better at it.  If you do not get better at it, you will continue to be afraid of it!

This cycle of fear can go on and on. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

With a strategic and intentional approach, you get to decide when and how to break this cycle of fear of public speaking.