Sunday, June 6, 2010
Nuke those nerves
No matter who the workshop is for, when I ask participants what brought them along, the answer is always along the lines of ‘I want to be more confident’, ‘I need to manage my nerves’, ‘public speaking terrifies me’.
When I probe a bit I usually find that everybody suffers from more or less the same set of symptoms: shaking, sweating, blushing, forgetting words, being tongue tied, tummy turbulence, butterflies, a racing pulse, the ‘white light’…. Twice I have seen speakers actually pass out.
So why is it so scary? The answer is that deep down we are fearful of making ourselves look foolish. We dread the judgement of others. And we still have that primitive fight-or-flight mechanism that tells us we’re in danger when we’re exposed on stage with the lights in our eyes, and a bunch of other critters have us in their sights.
No matter that it’s normal to feel this way – if it remains a disturbing experience you won’t want to do it. But if you don’t do it you may miss out on some other things that you DO want – career advancement for example, or to be able to say lovely things at your daughter’s 21st.
There is a basic set of strategies for managing this. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy has been beneficial to people if there’s a really great fear. Deep breathing just before speaking helps to calm the mind. Exercise can be a good way of working off some anxiety and adrenalin before the event. When you’re on stage try fixing an audience member with a stare – talking to one person is easier than talking to many, and after a minute or so your terror will abate. (Then look at a new person so the first one doesn’t feel victimized.)
The very best way to deal with nerves is to be well prepared and thoroughly rehearsed. Why else do performers practice in private and rehearse in the venue before the show? Why do the military do reconnaissance before mounting an operation? Because when you are doing an activity you’re familiar with you are more confident and more competent.
Ok, we’re not in a war zone, but public speaking is a live gig. You should give it the same kind of preparation you would if you were an actor or a musician. Don’t throw it together the night before and expect it to work. Do allow enough time to think and plan and prepare and revise and rehearse. Be very familiar with your material and with the place you’ll be presenting it. Then, as you do a few more presentations and speeches, over time you’ll find that you get used to it. And ultimately you’ll love that adrenalin rush and discover that speaking in public can actually be a joy.