How to use your public speaking nerves for good, not evil

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A couple of days ago I was at one of my beginners' public speaking days and a nervous looking participant, Lucy, stuck up her hand. 'How can I get rid of this horrible sick feeling in my stomach?' Lucy asked. 'I want you to help me kill the nerves, Sarah.'

I answered as I always do, that nerves are not the enemy we think they are. In fact, they can be the biggest blessing in our public speaking.

More often than not, our public speaking nerves are used for evil. Our nerves make us wobbly on our feet and unsure where we were certain. They undermine our usually confident self. They tell us we're just not cut out for the spotlight. They laugh and say 'told you so' when we screw up.

In extreme cases our nerves make us run away – I've regularly worked with people who are considering quitting their jobs to avoid public speaking!

But it doesn't have to be that way. With a few simple shifts in your thinking, you can learn how to use your nerves for good, not evil.

1. We all suffer from nerves

It's easy to think that nerves are just for rookies, but pretty much every experienced speaker I've ever encountered admits to getting nervous.

The difference between pros and beginners is not whether or not they get nervous, but whether or not they take the nerves seriously.

After years of speaking, I'm used to feeling the nerves, but I know they'll pass. So they're like an old friend that's part of the public speaking process.


2. Your audience can't see what you're feeling

After Lucy finished her first speech, she slumped down in her seat and put her head in her hands. 'That was awful,' she said. 'I was shaking and rambling and I went bright red.' Her group instantly jumped in to protest. To us, Lucy seemed calm, under control and likeable. They didn't see any hint of her nerves.

This happens with almost every speaker I encounter. And there's a very simple reason for it.

We're inside our body, feeling everything, whereas everyone else is outside your body, imagining you're doing OK. They can see maybe 20% of what you feel.

Knowing this helps you to let the nervous habits pass, rather than getting caught up and making the nerves worse.


3. Nerves are the same as excitement

Your body doesn't see any difference between nerves and excitement. Physiologically, they are exactly the same thing. Think about when you're excited, perhaps you have butterflies in the stomach, the same as when you're nervous. The difference is about perception.

When we're nervous we take those butterflies as a threat (horrible things are about to happen) and the brain labels the feeling FEAR. But when we see the scenario as an opportunity, the same feeling is labelled as EXCITEMENT.

Next time you feel nervous, try looking for the opportunity, rather than the threat.


4. Nerves are a sign you're doing something important

The moment your nerves stop is the moment you stop caring about public speaking. This would be a disaster for your public speaking as nobody wants to listen to a speaker who couldn't care less.

If you think about great moments in public speaking, from Martin Luther King Jnr's 'I have a dream' speech, to Brene Brown's popular TED talk on vulnerability, public speaking is at its best when there is a fresh frisson of energy coursing through the veins of the speaker.

Nerves are good!

5. 'I'm nervous and I'll do it anyway'

Gandhi was an exceedingly nervous communicator. As a young man, he suffered from crippling social anxiety. So how did someone so nervous lead his nation to freedom, through public speaking? By seeing what is more important.

As big as your nerves may be, think, 'What is more important to me than the nerves?' The bigger the purpose that sits behind your public speaking, the braver you will be.


6. Mistakes make the audience warm to you

Most speakers are nervous of screwing up. They play over and over again a scenario of failure. 'What if I forget my lines?' is the most common one.

It's what one of my speakers, Martin, was most afraid of. When he was doing his graduation speech for our Inspiring Speakers Programme, his biggest fear came true.

But instead of panicking, he used his freeze as a source of humour and turned it into perhaps the best moment of his speech.

Your nerves have huge energy and potential, rather like taming a wild stallion into a magnificent showjumper.

So don't get rid of your nerves, embrace them and use them to benefit your audience.

Sarah Lloyd-Hughes is founder of Ginger Public Speaking, a TEDx speaker and author of How to be Brilliant at Public Speaking (Pearson).

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