Vocal Lessons Article

#39 Why So Nervous?


Most people shutter at the sound of the words, “public speaking”. There are countless stories of the metaphoric death by embarrassment, or at least an acknowledgment of discomfort and avoidance at all cost. What is it that causes this universal feeling of dread? Why do we get so nervous at the thought of public speaking? Is it just in our heads? Well… yes and no.

When another person or group of people focuses their attention on you, you feel their energy. It is undeniable. It is real – as real as the sky, the ground and the weather. Trying to resist it or avoid it is to attempt the impossible. Therefore, like the weather, we have to accept this energy coming our way as a condition we find ourselves in and accept it. This understanding of acceptance is called habituation. It is the scientific term for “get used to it”.

Isn’t it nice to know that you’re not crazy or deficient in some way regarding public speaking? That should give you some comfort. But what can we do with the energy and the nerves once we accept them as part of the deal?

I have five general tips that have been proven to work, but only if you believe them:

Effective preparation means knowing where you’re going with your presentation or group conversation and taking the time to map it out. Give yourself either written or mental bullet points that will keep you on course. Make sure your intention in delivering your message is clear. State it right in the beginning and then follow through.

Setting the tone involves preparing and rehearsing aloud your first three sentences. The sound of your own voice speaking your well-thought-out ideas should not surprise you. Make sure you take a deep breath, feel the energy coming your way, smile at the attention and the opportunity to share your perspective, and allow the breath and the ideas to flow right out of you.

Breathe to connect when you need a moment to get back on track. Many people mistakenly believe that allowing your listeners to detect your breathing is allowing them to see your nervousness. The exact opposite is true. Taking a very deliberate breath sends the message that you are truly considering your words, weighing their importance or connecting to your thoughts on a deeper level. These are all wonderful messages that every listener understands and appreciates.

Pause for your listeners to process the concepts you are communicating. The temptation will always exist to want to speed through your presentation just to get it over with. Not only do you feel like a runaway train but your listeners may perceive that you don’t want to be there. Imagine that! Take several moments throughout your talk to pause, scan the room and smile. This will illicit acknowledgment and empathy from the group.

Ride the empathy that is always there. Of course, we all have empathy for the poor soul burdened with the dreaded role of public speaker. We all understand the nervousness. We squirm when the speaker feels uneasy and we delight when the speaker gives us room to connect. Remember that people want to be taken on the journey that your presentation is meant to provide.

I know this all sounds very simple, easy and effective. It requires changing the way we look at things. Often it means looking at things the way they really are and not the way we think they are going to be. Public speaking is a wonderful way to promote your ideas and yourself. Embrace the nerves, embrace the energy and believe in the empathy that will make it all work.

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Paul Geiger

Paul Geiger

Associate Speech Coach at New York Speech Coaching