One of the questions most frequently asked about public speaking is how to overcome nervousness.  A quote I really connect with I read in a book by Paul McGee, The SUMO Guy, a favourite speaker and author of mine.  It goes “you can’t get rid of the butterflies, but you can teach them to fly in formation”.  Here’s my suggestions for how you can control your nerves:

Calming your body

When people say they are nervous about public speaking, the advice given is often that the feeling is essentially the same as excitement.  The reactions of your body include heart racing, sweaty palms and butterflies in your stomach.  These are the same for both nervousness and excitement.  The advice goes to “tell yourself” that your body is excited, not nervous.  I also know people who swear by power poses before they go onstage.

Whilst these things are true, it might not be helpful to everyone, especially for your first forays in public speaking.  What if you’re so nervous that your hands are shaking and you feel sick?  I’d keep it simple with regards to keeping your body calm:

  • Remember to breathe.  As slowly and deeply as possible, but just being conscious of actually regularly taking a breath will help. 
  • Smile.  You may not feel like it, but smiling will work wonders to help you connect with your audience and help you feel better.
  • Try not to fidget.  There are all sort of body language tips and techniques for public speaking.  When you’re still mastering your nerves, my advice is not to worry about them.  Concentrate first on not fidgeting – swaying backwards and forwards, clicking a pen, fiddling with jewellery or your hair.  Standing (or sitting) still as you present may not always be the most interesting thing to do, but a calm demeanour is much more likely to hide your nerves and be interpreted as confidence by an audience.

Talk about what you know

The chances are that if you’ve been asked to make a presentation or speech, it’s because you have valuable knowledge or perspective on a subject.  You have something helpful to share with the people you are going to be speaking to.  And that is what you should do – share your expertise, passion and insights on your subject.

The emphasis is on “your”.  It is much easier to recall stories and examples you are familiar with.  If you are talking about something that has actually happened to you, it’s already in your memory.  You don’t have to spend energy trying to keep something new in your brain. 

Most people in an audience are going to be cheering you on.  Given the prevalence of people who are nervous about public speaking, the vast majority are in awe of anyone who does it.  The thing that always helps me to bear in mind is that the audience have no idea what I’m going to say.  Whilst I might be tempted to beat myself up about not having remembered every single thing, the people I speak to never know if I’ve missed anything.

Being nervous means you care

Once you’ve got your initial nervousness under control, you can then embrace the nerves. When I first joined Toastmasters, I was incredibly nervous.  The first time of doing something for me is always the worst.  I don’t know what to expect or whether I have any chance of succeeding.  I was always extremely nervous the first time I took on a particular role.  Every time I did it, it got easier.  To an extent, I practiced some types of speaking so much (over many years) that they became easy.  I wasn’t challenged and learning in the same way as when I started.  I’d become too comfortable.

In the end I decided to join an advanced club.  Its members were some of the longest-standing and accomplished speakers in Toastmasters.  I aspired to develop my speaking skills to their level.  Because it’s the type of person I am, I didn’t jump straight in to doing speaking roles in this new club (which were often done a little differently).  I waited and watched.  Partly this helped me learn from others.  Partly it did make me nervous as to how good the members there were.

Again I found myself nervous about speaking.  Not shaking nervous like I had been when I first started.  I knew I had a base level of speaking skills.  But I felt those butterflies in my stomach.  This was the kind of excited nervous that spurred me on.  I wanted to stretch myself, try new things and become a better speaker.  I know the butterflies are because I’m doing something I care about, that challenges me and I enjoy that feeling. Those butterflies are flying in formation.

You probably aren’t gong to fully overcome your nervousness. That’s actually a good thing. Because being nervous in a good way reminds you why what you’re doing is important. If you can embrace nerves in a controlled way, you will be a better speaker. My main tips for doing this:

  • Pay attention to your body – breathe, smile, try not to fidget.
  • Remember you have something helpful to share and the audience wants you to do well.
  • Enjoy the feeling – nerves mean you care.

Photo by Shiebi AL on Unsplash