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How to overcome your speaking nerves by turning fear into your friend

January 11, 2018

When you’re starting a new business or part of a small team, public speaking is an essential skill and yet one that many of us fear so much.

As a small business owner you need to be the face of your own business and being able to impress rooms full of people will open lots for doors for you.

So how can you overcome your fears of speaking to an audience? Lyn Roseaman, explains.

Being nervous of speaking in public is normal

Being nervous is normal. As Mark Twain astutely observed:

“There are two types of speakers. Those who get nervous and those who are liars.”

Interestingly, no one is born with a fear of public speaking. Apparently, we are born with two innate fears – fear of loud noises and fear of falling.

Fear of public speaking is something we learn. This means we can reprogram our mindset to feel more positive about speaking in public.

We can learn to replace debilitating nerves with good nerves, the ones that give us positive energy and presence on stage and help us connect with our audience.

To achieve this, we need to take four steps to make friends with our nerves;

1. Examine your excuses… are they proportionate?

What are the emotional barriers that you put up to convince yourself that you can’t speak in public?

  • I’ll be under scrutiny and be caught out
  • I’ll be a lesser person if I’m not perfect
  • I’m afraid of rejection – people won’t want to know me anymore
  • I’ll be boring
  • And I’m sure you can think of others.

Now, imagine how you’d feel if your business failed simply because you were too nervous to speak to potential investors, customers, colleagues, etc. Imagine how you’d feel if you always had to get a colleague to speak for you because you’re too frightened.

Isn’t the damage to your reputation, perhaps even the loss of the business you care about, far worse than a few nerves? We need to maintain a sense of proportion.

Learn to manage your nerves

Public speaking has nothing to do with self-worth. You are more than your speech and your ability to speak has nothing to do with who you are as a human being. The good news is that managing the nerves and speaking with confidence and sincerity is a skill that you can learn.

Start by making a list of all your excuses. Once we know what our fears are, we’re in a position to confront them head on. Interrogate them. Deconstruct them. Render them powerless and clear our head of negative thoughts.

Think about what you would say to a friend, a child or a colleague presenting you with these excuses. What would you say to them? Would it have something to do with self-belief, visualising successful outcomes or some other encouraging advice?

2. Persuade your brain to work with you

When we are really nervous, our ability to think quickly and clearly diminishes and may vanish entirely to the extent that we actually dry up.

Yet, when we are speaking to an audience, we want our brain to be working with us, in the moment, thinking about what we are saying, responding to the needs and reactions of our listeners.

Think about Q&As. You can only speculate about the types of question that might come up and consider what you might include by way of an answer. But you can’t cover every eventuality and that’s when you need to be quick on your feet, brain working with you.

To pull together an effective response from your wealth of knowledge, you need to tailor your thoughts and ideas to the questioner and their needs. This is unlikely to happen if your brain is paralysed by nerves.

Controlling your inner ‘Chimp”

According to psychiatrist Steve Peters, author of The Chimp Paradox, we can learn to manage stress positively.

He talks about the Human (or thinking) part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) that works with logic and reason and the Chimp that makes snap judgments based on emotions and gut instinct.

This is the fight/flight/freeze mechanism and it originates in the amygdala. These two parts of our brain can work independently or together. In public speaking, we need them to work together.

As public speakers who are stressed or nervous, our Chimp will always react first. To keep us safe it will go into fight, flight or freeze mode. This is normal, but it is not what you need for a strong performance and quick thinking.

Programming your brain to be positive

To help relax your Chimp, you need to program your brain with positive speaking associations. This creates and develops a sense of safety that does not need the intervention of the Chimp.

How can you achieve this?

  • Start by taking any opportunity to speak – friends and family, colleagues and branch out from there.
  • In any public-speaking environment, arrive early. Familiarise yourself with the speaking area so that you feel calm and comfortable.
  • Introduce yourself to members of the audience, so you see familiar, friendly faces from the stage.
  • Register the applause. Give yourself a pat on the back for a speech well delivered.

Once you are more comfortable and your Chimp is no longer in control, your ability to reason and think on your feet will grow, while your Chimp will help bring energy and enthusiasm to your speech.

3. Expect to be nervous and make it work for you

If you leave your Chimp in charge, nervousness can translate into any number of undesirable behaviours in front of your audience, such as saying too much, too quickly, sweaty palms, nervous movement or facial expressions, inability to smile, pounding heart, defensive stance and so on.

It affects us all differently and you need to identify the effect on you.

Mark Twain said we all get nervous when we speak, but what exactly is nervousness? It is energy; it is what we experience when the adrenaline is flowing. And, as speakers, adrenaline is our friend, giving us energy and presence on stage.

Harnessing your adrenaline

It is important to welcome and appreciate adrenaline. It helps us demonstrate our enthusiasm and passion for our business and our subject, it helps us engage with our audience and generate a real sense of fun and excitement.

Before the adrenaline kicks in, we need to be well prepared and focused on what will go right, not what could go wrong. Give yourself the pre-match pep talk – I’m ready, my material is good, I look the part, this is going to be fun, etc.

Once the adrenaline surges, we need to make it help us. Some people find it helpful to move, run on the spot, jump up and down. Breathe slowly and deeply. Take to the stage and pause. Practise smiling – there is nothing more engaging than a warm and genuine smile. Take a deep breath and start to connect with your audience with your attention-grabbing opening.

After your speech, enjoy the surge of wellbeing you get from your success.

4. Don’t expect perfection, make a connection

Your goal when you take to the stage is to connect with your audience and give them an answer to the question running through their heads “What’s in it for me?”

It’s not about being perfect, but about creating an engaging connection with your audience, while sharing something that’s important to you and worthwhile to them.

Perfectionism is the curse of the speaker. By striving for perfection, you set yourself up to fail. None of us is perfect and we all make mistakes, so as a perfectionist, failure lurks around every corner.

Be clear in your own mind that the audience is unlikely to know if you make a mistake unless you tell them. Speakers often reprimand themselves for forgetting a chunk of their speech, but the audience does not know what you had planned to say and, therefore, won’t miss it.

Don’t strive for perfection

Instead of trying to be perfect, do yourself a kindness and give yourself permission to be less than perfect. Set yourself challenging, yet achievable, standards and give yourself a pat on the back when you’ve spoken.

Focus on what you did well, savour the glory and note ways in which you can be even better next time. Great speeches do not happen overnight. They are an iterative process of crafting and honing content, practising delivery and seeking feedback.

Think like a sportsman, carry a post-it note with you to remind you… “Connection, not perfection!”

About the author

This article has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Lyn Roseaman of Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. With 300+ clubs and 7,500 members in the UK and Ireland, find your local club at Toastmasters.org

More help on perfecting presentations, pitches and talks

You can find lots more tips to help you deliver winning presentations, pitches and and talks in these other ByteStart guides;