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Google ‘dealing with nerves when public speaking’ and you’ll find hundreds of articles on the topic.
I have reworked the list below after a conversation yesterday evening with pupils at the University of Southampton Business School. Despite being confident, energetic and focused young people with lots of opportunities in front of them, a lot of their focus when presenting was on avoiding nerves.
Below are my top ten (slightly unique) tips for avoiding nerves when public speaking. I hope that they are useful. They are no substitute for in-person coaching and training, but if you have any questions, please do contact me using the contact form at the end of this article.
(WARNING: this article includes input from Beyonce and is sponsored by TREBOR Mints).
Know your audience
We’re all comfortable talking to groups of friends, but ask us to talk to a group of strangers and the shakes set in. Before you speak, take time to meet your audience beforehand, have a chat with attendees and seek out their smiling faces when you first stand up on stage. Moving your audience from ‘strangers’ to ‘acquaintances’ is a great way to give yourself confidence when speaking to them.
So many of us turn to caffeine or energy drinks before we speak, to give us the ‘edge’ – that extra energy to beat our fears. The bad news is that the majority of these drinks increase your heart rate – quickly fooling the rest of your body into thinking it’s in panic mode. Before you know it, those deadly nerves have then arrived in the form of a dry mouth, shaky voice and fluttery tummy - you know the drill!
Look the part
It’s tough to feel confident in front of a crowd if you’re doubting your own appearance. Make sure to wear your best clothes – those killer heels that you feel a million dollars in, or that expensive suit you have. It’s your public speaking suit of armour – use it!
If you don’t breathe you die. (Thanks GCSE Biology!) If you don’t breathe enough, your brain starts to slow down.
Oxygen helps the brain function and when we’re speaking, we need all the brain function we can get to give our best performance. Don’t be afraid to take big pauses for breathing – it’ll help the nerves, and improve your performance too.
Open with confidence
Know your first line inside out, so that you can deliver on autopilot. It’s the most important line to learn, as if you can deliver it without thinking when you’re nervous, you’ll be flowing into the rest of your speech before you know it, and succeeding!
Have a small mint in your mouth
When our body goes into panic, it stops all unnecessary functions – including producing saliva. A dry mouth tells us that we’re nervous and then our other functions begin to respond and go into nervous mode too. To avoid the dry mouth (and the ensuing panic) hide a small mint underneath your tongue whilst you present. It will ensure you keep producing saliva, and avoid the dry mouth setting of the rest of your nervous system.
Don’t expect perfection
Winston Churchill didn’t come out of the womb as a great public speaker, and neither did Obama. It takes time and practice to become a good speaker. If you beat yourself up because you weren’t perfect, you’ll feel worse next time. It’s good to have something to improve upon – otherwise life would be pretty dull!
Many of us are nervous because we think our audience are going to ‘find us out’, undermine our points, or worst of all, heckle (but seriously, how many business presentations each year get heckled? More people are probably killed by Sparrows annually).
If you back up every point you make with evidence, (stories, statistics and research) then your audience will question the quality of your resources, not you, which is a much more comfortable discussion!
Know your stuff!
There’s no substitute for rehearsal, sorry.
Practice does indeed make perfect, and if you know your speech, you’ll feel much more in control and therefore less nervous.
Don’t be afraid to take notes with you on stage. You’ll feel more confident and your audience would much rather see a good speech with notes than only half of a great speech that was forgotten because you had no notes!
Do a Beyonce
Beyonce has an alter ego (Sasha Fierce) that she ‘becomes’ on stage, someone sexy, someone confident, someone fearless. There’s nothing to say you can’t too!
Imagine what that alter ego is like when on stage, what they do, what they say, how they react.
Then, become that person and practice switching their behaviour on and off – unleash the actor within you!
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