At age 15, Darlene Price had to give her very first speech.
She was presenting an oral book report on “Great Expectations” to Mrs. Weaver’s tenth grade English class. She was nervous and could feel her hands shaking, heart racing, knees knocking, and palms sweating. As she reached the front of the room and turned to face her 33 classmates, she froze.
Moments passed, snickers erupted, and Mrs. Weaver asked 15-year-old Price to begin her presentation.
As soon as she made eye contact with the audience, all of the nervous tics disappeared — not because a wave of calm came over her, but rather because she fainted.
Three decades later, Price is a communications coach, author, and the president of Well Said, Inc., an award-winning company that teaches professionals how to speak with confidence, clarity, and credibility. And, she jokes, she “can finally stay vertical during a speech.”
Price says her high school experience taught her this: Effective public speaking is not about getting rid of the nerves. It’s about managing them so that you’re able to effectively communicate and connect with the audience.
She’s also learned that what happened to her in tenth grade isn’t so uncommon.
In fact, surveys about our human fears commonly show fear of public speaking toward the top of the list. “Though statistics vary on the exact percentages, it’s safe to say most of us get nervous before a public speaking engagement,” she explains. “As a speaker facing an audience, we often fear failure, criticism, judgment, embarrassment, comparison, or rejection.”
Physically, nervousness and anxiety may cause an increased heart rate, a queasy stomach, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, weak knees, dry mouth, a quivering voice, blushing, muscle tension, headache, stuttering, lightheadedness, or, even fainting — which Price learned the hard way.
“Despite the scary list of symptoms, the good news is this: There are no negative consequences from feeling nervous; the trick is to avoid showing it.” An audience cannot see how you feel; they only see how you look and act. Therefore, when you learn how to look and act calm, confident, and composed on the outside, that’s what the audience perceives and believes.
Here are 11 tips for calming your nerves before a big presentation:
Prepare. Research your subject, craft your content, and know your material well in advance, Price suggests. “Just remember the six Ps: Proper Preparation and Practice Prevent Poor Performance,” she says. “Procrastination only leads to increased anxiety.”
Know your venue. “Don’t wait until you arrive onstage to realise that there’s a post blocking your view of half the audience, or that they will be serving dinner while you speak, or that there are problems with the audio visual equipment provided,” says public speaking coach Ian Cunliffe. Research the venue, become familiar with the schedule of events surrounding your presentation, and test the equipment beforehand.
Practice. There’s no better way to calm your nerves and ensure a winning presentation than to rehearse aloud, with an audience if possible. “Ideally, record the rehearsal and review your performance,” Price says.
Visualise your success. Sports psychologists have proven that an athlete’s ability to vividly visualise his or her success creates a higher win rate, she says. “Before your next presentation, mentally walk yourself through the presentation. Picture yourself speaking with confidence and poise; see your audience responding positively.”
Practice positive self-talk. “Replace negative thinking with affirmations, which comes from the Latin affirmare, ‘to make steady or strengthen,'” Price says. “Say to yourself, ‘I am a dynamic speaker.’ ‘I am enthusiastic and engaging.’ ‘I am prepared and confident.'” As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t — you are right.”
Know your audience. “Do a little research beforehand in order to find out what your audience is hoping to gain from hearing you speak,” says Cunliffe. “Arrive early and talk to a few individual audience members about their needs, that way you’ll have insider information and friendly faces that you can focus on when you take the stage.”
Price agrees. “Conversation helps relax your nerves, creates a bond with your audience, and sets the stage for ‘personable’ speaking versus ‘public’ speaking.”
Exercise lightly and breathe deeply before you speak. Find a private area beforehand where you can do some light stretching or a few knee-bends. Another option is to take a brisk walk down the hall and back. “This rids the body of excess energy,” she explains. “In addition, take several deep breaths. Inhale through the nose on a slow count of three; and exhale through the mouth on a slow count of three. Deep breathing floods the brain with oxygen.”
Memorize your opening. The beginning of the presentation often carries a rush of adrenalin. Learn your first few sentences so well you don’t have to think about it. “This empowers you to start strong and make a confident first impression despite nervousness,” says Price.
Claim the three “audience truths.” One: They believe you’re the expert, so don’t tell them otherwise. Two: They want you to succeed, so they’re on your side. Three: They won’t know when you make a mistake, so don’t announce it.
Smile. Sincere smiling emits chemicals in the brain that calms the nerves and promotes a sense of well being, she says. “Plus, it shows your audience that you’re happy to see them and enthusiastic about the message.”
Realise you don’t look as nervous as you feel. Presenters who review their videotaped presentations almost always say, “Wow, I don’t look nearly as nervous as I felt.” “Remember, your audience does not see how you feel inside; they only see how you look and act on the outside,” Price says.
As a speaker, when you’re calm and confident going into a presentation (or at least look as though you are) you reap a multitude of benefits, namely believability, likeability, and visibility. “When you’re able to manage your nerves, take the mic, and connect with an audience, you greatly increase your visibility and career opportunities in the workplace,” Price concludes.