Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Conquering Public Speaking When You Are Nervous!

Seinfeld once said, the greatest fear people have is public speaking. The second greatest fear people have is death. That means you'd rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy...!

It's time to break some new ground, and learn how to do public speaking when you are nervous. Let me first point out, that this post is not, 'How to do Public Speaking without nerves'. The reality is, that more often than not, the nerves don't go away. I'd rather learn, how to communicate effectively while I have nerves, but learn how to keep them in check. While ultimately learning how do to make presentations without nerves is the grand goal, more often than not, we are communicating while we are nervous.

Trust me, I've been there. Twelve years ago I nervously stepped out at Church and preached my first sermon. Even after hundreds of sermons, and speaking at many community functions, like weddings, Rotary Clubs, Remembrance Days, Schools and Business Meetings, I still get the nerves! I have to put into practice what I'm about to share with you every time I communicate, so that I don't let the fear of public speaking and the nerves get the better of me.


Firstly, let me tell you a couple of stories. I was in grade 4 as a youngster, and the ultimate talent quest was on. So I got together with some of the girls from my class, and we decided to sing a song together as our performance. All was good. The hands were a bit sweaty. Though I knew the words of the song. I had sung in front of a crowd before. We launched into our groovy rendition of an old rock n roll hit, and then it hit me. No, it was not a tomato from the back row, but it was a tsunami of nerves consuming my body. What was I going to do? I couldn't sing any longer. The nerves had taken over. I needed an exit strategy. So I put my hand on my tummy and pretended I was about to be sick, and I ran out the side exit. What an entertaining performance! The nerves had consumed me.

After many years of preaching up a storm at church, and after many meetings, oral presentations, school meetings and the like, I had another 'the nerves consumed me' moment. This time, it was at a business gathering of about 400 people. I was asked to attend because I would be one among about a dozen of people who would be receiving $1,000 for their respective non-for-profit organization. I felt honoured to be there, and to receive this money for the work of The Salvation Army. Then it happened. The unthinkable. The public speaker or host up the front asked that each recipient of the gift 'say a few words.' A slow motion, deep, deep voice played over in my mind... 'Saaaaayyyy... a fewwwww wooooorrrrrdddsss..'

My mind was blank. I mean, absolutely blank. The nerves compounded. What made matters worse, was that everyone receiving the cheques were epitomising the art of public speaking. They were making people laugh and wowing people with their sophisticated examples of how far they would somehow stretch their thousand dollars.

Then my name was called. My mind was still blank, and the nerves had now taken a hold of my self-confidence! I looked calm on the outside, but within I was a mess. I then got up and shared what I thought was an absolute clincher of an opening sentence. I said, 'Thanks Wayne.... I'll try not to speak as long as my sermons...'

Dead silence...

Well that line didn't work, I thought to myself. That next 3 minutes, was the most difficult 3 minutes in my public speaking life! I mumbled my way through some sort of thank you speech, and went and sat down. People clapped, but I felt like my face was turning brighter than a stop sign. I sat down, and sipped a glass of water. Nerves got the better of my public speaking!


Fear of public speaking is commonplace. Hence this article. So, how do you do public speaking when you are nervous?

When you Fail at Public Speaking, Try Again

Let me begin this section by saying, that even if nerves do get the better of you, you should choose to try again next time. Do not give up trying to beat the nerves. I could have easily given up singing after that embarrassing moment in Primary School. I could have easily made excuses about public speaking following my heart-pounding three minutes in front of 400 business leaders. Though I chose to try again. 

Take a Deep Breath

Now, before you skip to the next point, hear me out on this one. The nerves that we experience in any situation relate to a part of our brain called the 'amygdala'. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for our emotions. This section of the brain looks like two small almond shaped pieces. Whenever we feel angry, resentful, fearful, nervous or joyful and content, the amygdala is at work. 

Now, it is known, that the section of the brain that is rational kicks in after the brain has processed the situation via the amygdala. The pre-frontal cortex (the front forehead part of the brain), is where the rational thinking occurs. Let me explain. When someone says something rude to us, the amygdala is quick to respond to the situation with a flood of emotions. We may be feeling anger, hurt, sadness and whatever else our emotional circuitry is producing. The amygdala then sends the processing of the situation to the pre-frontal cortex, where we think through the situation rationally. This happens literally a split second later. 

So, what's the point? Our emotions are scientifically proven to arouse in us a response before our rational thinking does. That is why some men punch out their neighbour when they say something about their wife - their emotions have kicked in, before they have thought rationally about the circumstance. Can you think of a situation where you think afterwards, 'Why did I just do that?' You reacted via your emotions before you thought rationally about the situation.

What's this got to do with public speaking?

If you take a deep breath, you are allowing time for your brain to go from your emotional circuitry to your rational circuitry. Taking three BIG deep breaths before public speaking, helps you to calm the nerves, because your brain is not merely relying on its emotions, but also its rational thinking. The rational thinking is what quite often will say to us, 'It's not such a big deal. It will be ok. Just relax. Don't over-exaggerate your emotions. Relax.'

When you are nervous at public speaking, take a deep breath. It's scientifically proven to work!

Know your Content Well

This seems to be a sure fire way to increase confidence and to calm the nerves when public speaking. The more you know the content, the less you are concerned about structuring intellectually sound sentences, because you have already done the ground work. I mention this point often in relation to how to communicate effectively

Personally, over the years, as I continue to study and learn, I find the times I am speaking publicly with a well researched and understood topic the more confidence I have. The reason I was so nervous in front of the 400 business leaders, was partly because I had not had the opportunity to think through my three minutes on stage. I did not have time to formulate my thoughts on the topic. A year later, my wife spoke at the same event, and because of prior planning, she nailed an inspiring, short monologue of the local work of The Salvation Army. She knew her content well!

Practice your Opening Remarks

Getting off to a confident start when public speaking can help boost the confidence! So practice the opening remarks. Obviously adapt your content based on the context of the situation, but it may be a warm welcome, an introduction to special guests, a provocative opening statement, a funny anecdote, an interesting story, a captivating thought, or an hook that draws people in, for example, 'I want to tell you about someone that really gets up my nose...' (This is the beginning of a sermon on Romans 5, about Adam and his sinfulness). Practice your opening remarks, so as to get off to a confident start that creates a platform for the rest of your message.

Land the Plane

When you are nervous, it is easy to not land the plane. You know the situation in public speaking, "In closing tonight, I would like to say... " Five minutes later, "And just one more thought..." LAND THE PLANE! Don't get so nervous you cannot bring your thoughts to some sort of cohesive ending. It may be helpful to have a closing line written out so as to finish strong. This leads me to my next point.

Stay on Topic

If you are speaking with notes, then this is not an issue. Though, if you are ad-libbing and you are nervous, this can become disastrous! We all know the setting. A nervous speaker begins rattling on, and then continues to rattle on, and the nerves continue and they keep rattling on. If you are prone to do this, then speak with notes. Otherwise, stay on topic and do not let the fear and nerves allow you to wander off course.

Be Aware of Your Body Language while Public Speaking

If you are nervous you may be unaware of bad or distracting body language while speaking. We all know full well when we are nervous, we fidget with our fingers, feet, with the podium and we say 'Umm' every 64 seconds to just name a few. Try and relax, and lower the shoulders and stop fidgeting. If you are unaware of possible bad body language while public speaking, then try filming yourself and watching it over. You could also try the 'speaking in front of the mirror' trick, or allow someone who you trust to give you reliable, honest feedback. Those ideas can be helpful. Watching the video of your own public speaking (which I've done before), helps you to become aware of your own little idiosyncrasies when you're communicating in public. You become aware of habits you possibly never realised. Personally, I noticed that sometimes I simply wander back and forth across the front stage, which is fine at times, but I realised that it was becoming a sign of nerves! 

Request a Super Natural Ability to Communicate

Remember Moses? He was a stutterer, that God famously used to end the regime of slavery for the Israelite people in Egypt. God requested Moses to go and speak to Pharaoh of Egypt (the Political leader of the day) and ask him to let the people go from oppression. Moses complained and made excuses, but finally went and spoke boldly to the political heavyweight. God promised Moses that he would be with him (Exodus 3:12). In fact, with his brother Aaron's help, Moses changed the course of history, by his acts of public speaking!

What about Gideon? Gideon was nervous. Gideon was a coward (See Judges 6). God requested of Gideon to rise up as a mighty warrior and to go and lead an army to fight against the Midianites. I would have loved to have watch the arousing speech of a nervous Gideon, speaking to his Israelite army. Though with the conviction of God in his heart, and the empowerment from God, he spoke to his people. 

When you are speaking words of truth and grace, God by his mercy will desire to fill you with a greater measure of the Holy Spirit in order to communicate effectively. Ask Jesus to empower you to speak. If you have never prayed that before, pray with me right now, 'God, I pray that as I speak, I will speak with boldness and confidence and that lives will be challenged and inspired by what they hear, as you speak through me. Empower me by the presence of the Holy Spirit, in Jesus name!' If you are a follower of Jesus, I would pray that; whether you are preaching a sermon, speaking at a local school, or saying grace at Christmas time.

God can give you a super natural ability to communicate publicly.

1 comment:

  1. Also, Dale Carnegie writes some material on the art of public speaking, which is helpful.


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