Updated: May 28, 2020
Heart pounding. Hands shaking. Breathing haggard. Pits sweating.
Your name is about to be called. You’ve practiced your speech over and over and over (or you just put it together the night before) and you know you’re as prepared as you're going to be. You think back to that moment when you agreed to do this stupid speech and you wonder what was going through your head. Finally… it's coming. Your intro is almost over. “So, help me welcome—*insert your name*.”
Heart palpitating. Hands convulsing. Breathing shallow. Pits gushing. You face the audience and start your speech.
If you have ever started a speech this way, you know that confidence is not going to be a strong point in your presentation. Rather, your strong points will probably be talking too fast, forgetting your points, missing facts, and ruining jokes.
Learning why we are nervous and how we can not only combat it, but use nervousness, is something that even the most experienced speaker can grow in. Here's what we'll cover in today's blog:
On a physical level, why do people get nervous about public speaking?
On an emotional level, why do people get nervous about public speaking?
Is nervousness always a negative aspect?
How can you turn negative nervousness into positive energy?
Drama Queen: why people get nervous physically
When we were created, we were given a sophisticated fight or flight response. This response allows us to outrun a mountain lion or fight off an attacker far more powerful than we are. It allows mothers to protect her children by accomplishing feats that are supernatural for her physically. When stressed, the sympathetic nervous system takes control of the body, which then triggers fight or flight.
Upcoming is a bunch of science, and if you're not wired to enjoy this kind of stuff, just bear with me. Why? Because A) it's interesting and B) I'm going somewhere... so just trust me.
"Fight or flight" is a hormonal concoction that the human and animal body uses to rally a bunch of energy as fast as it can to deal with a threat and survive. Our body’s autonomic nervous system is the conductor of this alert system.
Because of this call to action, our larger muscles group obtain more oxygenated blood so we can use those muscles with more speed and force. Our senses sharpen so we can see and hear better. Our pupils dilate open so we can see more clearly, even in darkness. In addition, our hairs stand on end, which does two things: one, it makes us more aware of our physical environment and two, it will make us appear larger as to intimidate the threat (this is more for animals).
Our blood vessels to the skin will constrict so as to reduce blood loss if there be and the sweat glands open to keep us from over-heating in all this fighting of flighting.
Our blood vessels constrict to the kidney and digestive system so as to shut down any system that is not essential at this moment. The bowels and bladder may close up shop so there’s no need for other internal actions.
Our adrenal cortex floods our bloodstream with stress hormones. Endorphins (the body's natural pain killers) are released so that if you are fighting, you won’t feel the pain of the wounds inflicted upon you.
Our cardio-vascular system is on duty, pumping our heart from a regular one gallon per minute cycle up to five gallons per minute cycle! Our arteries constrict to enhance pressure around our bodies while the veins open to slow the return of blood to the heart.
Our respiratory system joins in the fight as the lungs, throat, and nostrils open. Our breathing becomes more rapid so we can bring more oxygen into our bodies. The blood carries oxygen to the muscles, allowing them to work harder. Deeper breathing also helps us to scream more loudly!
Our thyroid glands automatically stimulate metabolism. Fat from fatty cells and glucose from the liver metabolizes to create instant energy.
So we end up standing before an audience with:
Shifty eyes (senses sharpening)
Pale and clammy skin (sweat glands opening)
Dry mouth (blood vessels in kidneys constricting)
Nervous poop (bowels shutting down)
Jitters/shaking (stress hormones)
A racing heart (up to 5 gallons of blood in veins)
Shallow breathing (too much oxygenated blood)
Butterflies/nausea (glucose metabolizing)
WOW. Your body is literally in the same state as a life-threatening attack and you’re supposed to remember things like vocal variety, speech organization, hand motions, and stage presence? And that’s just the physical part! Let’s look at the emotional side to nervousness
It's Not About You, Bro: why people get nervous emotionally
Let’s look at three reasons behind emotional nervousness.
1) Anxiety about boring the audience – A speaker’s hope is to engage and enamor the audience. The fear of not connecting with the audience, of being considered boring, brings about insecurity, apprehension, and worry. If you’re focused on the fact you think you’re boring, you won’t be able to confidently infuse passion and enthusiasm in your speech. Instead, focus on the appearance of confidence. Even just looking like you're confident will help you feel more secure in what you're sharing.
2) Potential of appearing foolish – Beyond achieving goals, we all want to appear circumspect in the way we accomplish our goals. No one wants to suffer disgrace. The possibility of embarrassment causes great fear and panic. I was once in a humorous speech contest. I wanted to give a speech discussing the humor behind the way adults speak to babies. But in order to do this, I would have to speak "baby talk" in front of an audience. If I hadn't have been willing to risk it, I would have missed out winning a speech contest in front of over two hundred people. Don't be afraid of looking foolish. You do your thing and people will respect your acting, daring, and ingenious skills.
3) Risk of failure – From childhood to adulthood, we dream of success, victory, and achievement. To not finish first or be the best often increases nervousness and anxiety. If you’re too fixated on giving the best maid of honor speech that anyone has ever heard in their entire lives, you’ll never give yourself a chance to succeed. Your success is doing your speech, doing it well, and showing that you cared enough to work hard for this presentation.
There's No Upside to Puking: how nervousness can be a positive thing
After looking at the Why’s of nervousness, doesn’t it make sense to try to eliminate every trace of anxiety? As speakers (whether you only speak one time or if you're a seasoned speaker), should our goal be to rid ourselves completely of adrenaline so we can walk up on a stage, stand in front of an audience and give a speech as cool as a cucumber?
"Speakers who say they are as cool as a cucumber usually give speeches about as interesting as a cucumber." Anonymous
"Instead of trying to eliminate every trace of fright, you should aim at transforming it from a negative force into what Elayne Snyder calls positive nervousness."
"It’s a zesty, enthusiastic, lively feeling with a slight edge to it. It is the state you'll achieve by converting your anxiety into constructive energy. It’s still nervousness, but if feels different. You’re no longer victimized by it; instead you’re vitalized by it. You’re in control of it." Elayne Snyder
Nervousness energizes you. It helps you speak with vitality and enthusiasm. I know that when I get up to speak in front of people, I have a lot more energy than when I’m just sitting having a one on one conversation.
The benefit of adrenaline can be seen in competitive sports: athletes must get their adrenaline flowing before a game begins. The great home-run slugger Reggie Jackson said during his heyday, "I have butterflies in my stomach almost every time I step up to the plate. When I don't have them, I get worried because it means I won't hit the ball very well.'" The Value of Fear
"Surveys show that 76% of experienced speakers have stage fright before taking the floor. But their nervousness is a healthy sign that they are getting ‘psyched up’ for a good effort. Novelist and lecturer I. A. R. Wylie explains, 'Now after many year of practice I am, I suppose, really a "practiced speaker." But I rarely rise to my feet without a throat constricted with terror and a furiously thumping heart. When for some reason, I am cool and self-assured, the speech is always a failure.'" The Art of Public Speaking by Stephen E. Lucas
Nervousness focuses you. In normal conversation, don’t you find it easy to get distracted? You’re in the middle of talking to a co-worker about a work-related conflict and you find yourself thinking about something you forgot to do back at home. You can't be doing that in your best man speech! You need to be focused on your topic, directing every thought and word towards the message you are trying to share with your audience.
“In public speaking, adrenaline infuses you with energy; it causes extra blood and oxygen to rush not only to your muscles but also to your brain, thus enabling you to think with greater clarity and quickness. It makes you come across to your audience as someone who is alive and vibrant.” The Value of fear
When harnessed correctly, adrenaline can liven up your presentation. Let your charisma flow! Being perky and sprightly allows for places of humor that you weren't expecting. Nervousness can actually give you confidence.
Nervousness can be paralyzing to some, but to you, my dear speaker, nervousness is a confidence booster. Over the years, thousands of speakers have developed confidence in their speech-making abilities. As your confidence grows, you will be better able to stand before other people and tell them what you think and feel and know–and to make them think and feel and know those same things.
"Don’t worry about nervousness as you start speaking. It is a good sign. Almost every able speaker is nervous on the outset. It indicates he is 'on edge' and ready. The time to worry is when you are not 'keyed up' with nervous energy. If you have thoroughly prepared, you are the master of the situation." The Public Speaker’s Treasure Chest by Herbert V. Prochnow
Why does one public speak? To communicate a message. Whether that message is to inspire, inform, or engage the audience, nervousness can be used to give you more confidence in your presentation. But how?
Turn That Frown Upside Down: how you can turn negative nervousness into positive energy
The first one is going to seem pretty obvious; and yet, it’s something that many people overlook.
Prepare. Prepare, prepare, prepare, prepare, PREPARE!!!!!!!!
If there is one and only one thing you walk away from after reading this, it's that you need to PREPARE for your speech ahead of time. Not the night-before-ahead-of-time, but give it a few days or weeks. You will automatically have more confidence if you've prepared.
Here are some more tips:
1) Put an emphasis on memorizing your intro and conclusion. Yes, I said memorize. That way when you're starting out, the first thing you're doing is looking the audience in the eye, not looking down at a paper. Being able to look your audience in the eye will diminish your nerves considerably. Also, if you forget some of what you're going to say in the body of your speech, you'll end strong with your conclusion memorized.
2) Think positively. I'm going to do amazing... I'm going to do amazing... I'm going to do amazing...
3) Use the power of visualization. Imagine that you are going to give this speech successfully... and then do it! Don't even take a moment of your mental energy to think about worst-case scenarios. Because you might make that happen.
4) Don’t expect perfection. You're going to mess up! And that's ok. When you say a word wrong or use incorrect syntax, just MOVE ON and keep going.
5) Be at your best physically and mentally. Don't be hungover, ok? Don't be drunk. Get sleep the night before, eat well. Wait to celebrate later and give this speech to the best of your ability.
6) Acquire speaking experience. Practice, practice, practice! Practice your speech on a couple of friends before you give it.
In addition to practice and preparation for the speech itself, we can do things while presenting:
1) Know that most symptoms are not seen. Even though you know you're soaked through with sweat, the audience doesn't know that. They can't see your beating heart, your shaking limbs (well, most of the time), or smell your nervous farts (ehhh well, let's hope they can't). Act confidently and they won't question anything.
2) Never mention nervousness. If you say you are nervous, the automatic human reaction is to then look for all of your nervousness. You want to point it out as to say, "Hey, I know that you know that I'm nervous so I'm going to say it before you can!" But, don't do it. You're just putting a spotlight on it.
3) Don't apologize. You've done nothing wrong. So don't apologize. Even if you mess up, or drop your cards, or make a mistake. Don't say sorry, just keep going.
4) Get audience action early in the speech. Have them participate by answering a question or singing a song with you.
5) Welcome experience. This is going to be so great, and you'll have this amazing experience to always look back on. Yay you!
There are also physical things that we can do before going up on stage:
1) Take a couple of deep breaths. Most people, when they are tense, take short, shallow breaths, which only reinforces anxiety. Deep breaths break this cycle of tension and help calm nerves. Breathe eight times holding each breath for eight seconds and releasing each breath for eight seconds.
2) Tighten your extremities. As you’re waiting to speak, quietly tighten and relax your hands, feet, leg muscles, arm muscles. Squeeze as hard as you can and then release. This physically releases adrenaline out of your system so you're not as shaky.
3) Push your arm or hand muscles against a hard object for a few moments, and then release the pressure.
4) Press the palms of your hands against each other in the same way. Tension, release... tension, release…
And lastly, we can control our nervousness by changing our mindset about it.
1) Shift focus from self to audience. Take time before your speech and even during it to think about your audience. You are there for them, not for you. You have been given an opportunity to be LISTENED to. Someone is taking time out of their day and giving it to you, so use it well! Instead of worrying about how you think and sound, think about how you can best communicate to your audience for their benefit.
2) Regard your task as COMMUNICATION rather than a performance. There are times that every word you say is being judged, but when you are given the opportunity to speak to an audience, remember you are there to communicate to them. You’re not doing a play (although acting is a major part of public speaking) and it’s more important to communicate effectively than to entertain without purpose.
3) Concentrate on COMMUNICATION with your audience over your FEAR of them. Instead of being afraid of your audience, aim to serve your audience by communicating effectively.
You can do this!
The next time your heart is pounding and your hands are shaking and your breathing is haggard and your pits sweating, take a deep breath. Recognize where you are at both physically and emotionally and in doing so, begin conquering and harnessing your nervousness into zesty, enthusiastic, and lively energy!
And if you're looking for more one on one help with your speech and your particular nervousness or nervous habits, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to work with you!
Information taken from the following sources:
The Public Speaker’s Treasure Chest by Herbert V. Prochnow
The Art of Public Speaking by Stephen E. Lucas
A pamphlet called The Value of Fear
Free information given out by Toastmasters International