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How to Handle Your Nervousness in Public Speaking

Nervousness is a major concern for most people when having to give a speech or presentation of some kind. Often known as stage fright, it can be as debilitating as freezing up completely to speaking incoherently in front of an audience, as one beauty pageant contestant did so famously a few years ago. Consistently, in poll after poll, the fear of public speaking grabs the number one spot, so it doesn’t surprise me that some people are more terrified about the prospect of public speaking than they are afraid of dying.

However, the ability to do well in the public speaking arena is crucial for job success! Few if any will be given the chance to advance their careers without the ability to give a good speech, sales pitch, or public relations presentation.

As a professor who has been teaching the craft of public speaking for the last five years, with twenty years of experience in public speaking through ministry, public relations, business, and teaching I have learn a few things about this art. In this blog, I can’t cover everything involved in creating and giving a good speech, but I can share some ideas and hints on one aspect of speech making that might help you. Frequently, I am asked about how to handle the nervousness that comes with having to speak in front of a group. I have plenty of experience speaking in front of people from just a few all the way to several thousand, and no matter the size of the group, I am always nervous.

But take the words of Beyonce to heart, “I think it’s healthy for a person to be nervous. It means you care – that you work hard and want to give a great performance. You just have to channel that nervous energy into the show.”

I think Beyoncé captures the heart of dealing with nervousness. Everyone gets nervous before having to speak in front of a group of people. It’s a natural thing, as a matter of fact, if you don’t get nervous before a speech there might be a problem. Most of the time when I’m nervous before a speech it turns out to be a good one. The few times when I have not been nervous the speech was a disaster. So if I am not nervous I should be worried because usually those are the times when the speech is not very good.

The best thing to do is not focus on trying to get rid of nervousness because nervousness is a natural part of the process and will probably always be present. Feeling what I would describe as “butterflies in the pit of my stomach” is really a sign that my body is getting prepared for action. This is where one can find the vitality and energy needed to be an effective speaker. So what we need to focus on with the nerves we experience is how to channel our nervousness in ways that assist us in getting our message to the audience.

It may seem odd to you, but nervousness is really a positive part of public speaking. It is the energy that can bring about the enthusiasm that makes the speech real to the audience. This may be hard to understand because a lot of times in our minds we imagine the worst. But the mind is one area where we can control how the message is conveyed. So controlling nervousness can begin by thinking positive thoughts and imagining the best possible outcome.

The first things I teach my students, and I share it with you, making effective speeches starts with what you think about yourself! Remember these thoughts; you are valuable, you are important, you have something of substance and depth to share, you have something positive to contribute! To do well you have to believe in yourself. You must believe your message needs to be heard. You must believe that the audience needs to understand the meaning of the message. There is nothing more important than the message and getting that message across effectively to the audience, because you have something worth saying which is important for people to hear.

The second thing needed to turn nervousness into positive energy is thinking positive thoughts with much greater quantity than negative ones. Filling your mind with positive self-talk by saying things like “I’m glad I can give the speech and share my message,” or “no one’s perfect, but I’m getting better with each speech I give,” and “everyone gets nervous, but if other people can handle it so can I” or “I’ve a message that the audience needs to hear I’ve done my work and practiced I’m fully prepared and I know they’re interested in what I have to say.”

Along with positive thinking use the power of visualization. Think of yourself going up to the podium, lectern, or microphone standing with confidence and assurance making eye contact with your audience and delivering your message with a firm and clear voice. Feel the connection you’re making with your audience and see how the audience is becoming more and more interested in what you have to say. Then imagine yourself having a powerful conclusion and the sense of achievements as you conclude your speech knowing, that not only have you done your best, but the audience understood the message that you wanted to get across.

Now along with positive thinking and the power of visualization you simply have to gain speaking experience. Enrolling in a public speaking class or group that works together at polishing your speaking skills, like Toastmasters, are good ways to develop the craft of public speaking. First of all they usually are a somewhat sympathetic audience because their aim is to help you with constructive criticism which will improve your public speaking skills. With anything that’s new, like your first day at school, first day on the job, first date, nervousness will be at its height at the beginning but will gradually lessen with more experience. Remember you will always have the “butterflies” but the intense nervousness that you felt as a novice will become less overwhelming with experience. Over time you will learn to take command of those feelings and use them as a directive force for making a powerful impact with your message.

Now it may help you to know that the majority of the nervousness you feel will not be visible to the audience. And if you focus on your message rather than the nervousness you feel you will still look calm. If you focus on the nervousness many times it grows and becomes more apparent. There are certain tricks of the trade to help you with this. For example, if you’re giving your speech with a manuscript which is printed out on full-size paper lay it on the podium; do not hold it in your hands. Many times when you’re nervous and you are holding something in your hands, like a piece of paper, it will begin to shake. When you focus on that shaking paper it makes you even more nervous and so it compounds the problem. If you hold something in your hands while speaking use a heavier bond paper. Three by five cards with your notes work well because as card stock they are much sturdier. You can even hold the cards in the palm of your hand, making it much less likely to show any shaking.

I have found that many students feel very nervous while making their speech and they assume the audience can see or sense how they feel. However, when they’re done with their speech and they mention how nervous they were their classmates are surprised because they looked calm and assured.

Another trick of the trade is to hold onto the sides of the podium. Of course, you want to be careful that you don’t look like you have a death grip on the podium. But by placing your hands on the sides of the podium the audience will not see your handshaking and it may give you a sense of assurance and control.

Keep in mind there is no such thing as the perfect speech, so don’t expect perfection from yourself at any time. It’s always a learning experience. Don’t let it rattle your nerves. Every speech has something that could be better or comes out differently than the speaker had originally planned. You may make a mistake in your speech but always remember that the audience, which has never heard the speech before, may not even realize that you made a mistake. If you just keep moving through your message it won’t draw attention to the fact that there was a mistake. If you lose your place or can’t immediately think about the next point just pause for a second and gather your thoughts and then move on. It’s better just to pause for a second to gather your thoughts rather than say, “I’m sorry,” or “I forgot what I was going to say,” which only draws your audience’s attention towards the fact that you lost your place. It also gets you flustered and you lose control of directing the nervousness towards its proper place which is enhancing the message. When the audience is focus on the fact that you lost your place they are no longer focused on your message. And remember the message is the most important thing; you don’t want to do things that might draw people away from it.

The last thing that will help you use nervousness in a positive way is an important principle not only for dealing with nervousness but is foundational for the whole speech making process. It is a mantra that I teach my students to remember and to say as much as possible; “prepare, prepare, prepare.” Nothing assist you better with controlling nervousness than being prepared!

If you would like more information or if I can assist you with developing your skills of public speaking, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

John M. Scholte, M.Div.

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