Master Your Message for Maximum Impact

Tips for Handling Nervousness

Being nervous about speaking is natural. Like an athlete who is up for the game, you’re feeling the flow of adrenalin. If you’re prepared and well-rehearsed, you can turn that nervousness into energy. (If you’re not prepared and well-rehearsed, you have every right to be nervous!)

You need a certain amount of anxiety and tension in order to perform well. Unfortunately, many speakers start to focus on their anxiety rather than on the business of communicating their message. They compound the problem by telegraphing their anxiety to the audience or openly asking for sympathy. Instead, use that energy to reach your audience. Develop the attitude that the energy is normal and beneficial. It will improve your powers of concentration and communication.

If you develop cold, sweaty hands before speaking, use that as a signal that you’re ready to speak. No one is going to be holding your hands, so no one but you will know they’re cold and sweaty.

Nervous person.

You can make nervousness work in your favor!

Even presenters with high self-esteem experience anxiety and tension. Professional speakers often feel anxious or tense before speaking. Indeed, stress before speaking appears to be a normal and natural emotional and physiological state. It helps ensure that we are alert and mentally active, and that we have the energy to meet the occasion.

So our goal should NOT be to eliminate stress, but rather to control it. A healthy amount of stress ensures that we perform at top levels. On the other hand, an unhealthy amount of stress can disable us as speakers. The key is control.

1. Dry mouth.

If your mouth becomes dry, drop your head thoughtfully during a natural pause and bite the side of your tongue (gently!). This causes the saliva to flow. Have a glass of water handy. Take a small sip during a natural pause. (Don’t take a large gulp. You could choke!) Do not use lifesavers or mints. They interfere with articulation and you could inadvertently swallow one and choke.

2. Too much saliva.

If your mouth fills with saliva and you feel you’re spraying the first few rows, put the tip of your tongue on the hard ridge behind the top teeth (the position for making “t” and “d”). Open your mouth and breathe in through the mouth. This position allows the air to dry the saliva without drying the tongue and vocal cords.

3. Drying up.

If you dry up or lose your train of thought, take your eyes off the audience for a moment. Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly as you look down at your notes and collect your thoughts. Focus on your notes, not the fact that you’re stumbling. You may repeat part of what you’ve said to help you and your audience get back on track. Be very natural and conversational. The time it takes to do this may seem horrendously long to you but, in truth, it will be a matter of seconds. Your audience probably won’t notice.

4. Tight throat.

Learn to yawn secretly. We all did it in school. Drop the head, keep the lips together, open the back of the throat and pull the air in through the nose. This is the best exercise I know of to release tension that can build in your throat. When you feel your throat tightening, don’t take a sip of water. The swallow can increase the tension. Instead, yawn secretly and open the throat.

5. Shaking.

Shaking hands and trembling knees are not a result of fear. It’s the homeostatic process of the body dissipating excess energy. Don’t try to control this process by clutching the lectern or shoving your hands in your pockets. You’re just adding to the problem. Use this excessive energy positively. Make motivated gestures and body movement. Make sure your gestures are motivated by what you’re saying. Let them happen naturally and fully. Restrained, nervous little flicks send out the “nervous message.” Large gestures are signs of confidence. Bodily movement should also be motivated -to bring you closer to the audience, to fill a pause with meaning or to emphasize a point. Random pacing or nervous repeated gestures can destroy a speech. Motivated gestures and body movement support and aid effective communication.

6. Shortness of Breath

If you become short of breath or can’t get your breath when speaking, stop talking. Drop your head and take your focus from your audience. Cross your left arm across the lowest part of your abdomen. Relax the shoulders. Take a deep breath into the lowest part of your abdomen. You should feel the pressure of your abdomen pushing against your crossed arm. Let the breath out slowly through your lips. Take in your next breath the same way while lifting your head and then start to speak. This is a condensed version of deep breathing and sighing which relaxes you and centers your breath.

7. Butterflies.

You can get rid of the butterflies by tensing the muscles of the buttocks and abdomen. Hold. Relax. (One of our clients has used this exercise to improve his putting.)

8. Facial tension.

Smile! Not only will it relax you, it will also relax your audience.

9. Meet Your Audience

One of the things I like to do is to meet as many of the audience members as possible before I get up to speak. That way, they’re more like friends. I feel more comfortable being myself after I’ve already met them than to try and entertain them COLD. The other advantage is that you can find out tidbits about them and perhaps use some of them in your talk to make your speech more personal.

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