Public Speaking: Understanding your nerves to overcome them


Do you ever get a common case of “butterflies” before delivering a presentation, keynote speech, or even pitching in at an important meeting? Have you ever felt a little tight across the chest, dry in the mouth, shivery or shaky with a strong urge to either sprint away from it all or scream out loud and punch someone in the face? Just me? Sorry – a little hyperbolic. Maybe no punching.

Perhaps you just feel the need to push on through at such a pace that you take very little account of anyone else in the room? You merely want to get it out of the way- over and done with. Or maybe, you freeze up altogether?

Even if you’ve experienced a modicum of any of these sensations, all you’ve proved yourself to be is a human that cares about the job you’ve been asked to do. Not so bad then. You care that the presentation, speech, pitch or meeting goes well and that you make the desired impact. Far from bad, these are good things.

It doesn’t feel good, though, Chris. It makes me all jittery, messes with my confidence and causes me to come across as nervous and unimpressive- plus I forget stuff.

You’re right. These aren’t good things- They neither feel, look nor sound good.

So, what’s going on?

Here comes a little science.

Brace yourself.

You’re experiencing an emotional hijacking- In more common, parlance, the kicking in of the fight, freeze or flight response. Indeed, a part of the brain called the amygdala triggers this emotional response before the cortical centres have fully understood what’s happening.

Yes. Show those nerves who’s boss with your deep scientific understanding. They don’t like that. (The nerves, that is)

Your heart rate and blood pressure increase. Your muscles tense up in preparation for quick action- In preparation to fight, flee the scene or freeze entirely. This hijacking comes into play in response to a perceived threat. It was all very useful, back in the day, when humans faced many threats to their lives on a regular basis. It’s somewhat less helpful when it kicks into play before delivering a presentation. However scary or important your audience may seem, they are NOT a threat to your life.

Put it this way. The nerves that you feel are actually a sign that your body, at least, is far too prepared for this presentation. I’ve always found that somewhat re-assuring. So, how can we gain handle on them and ensure that our over-eager bodies don’t get in the way of us connecting with our audience?

Well, this understanding of what’s going on is a great start, allowing you to become more objective – no longer a victim to your feelings but master of them. Don’t fight them. Be curious. Acknowledge them. Understand them. Sit with them. More often than not, once you stop trying to suppress or ignore the feeling, your anxiety subsides somewhat.

On top of this psychological understanding, here are 3 physiological steps that you can take to further reduce the effect of your nerves:

  1. Breathing: Inhale for a count of four, and exhale through pursed lips, steadily, until you are comfortably out of breath. Each time that you exhale, imagine your muscles relaxing a little more.  Do this for a few minutes and notice the impact. It lowers the heart rate.
  2. Physicality: Physically, open up and expand. This changes the bio-chemical make-up of your body. The level of cortisol (stress hormone) reduces massively, and the level of testosterone, which is associated with the ability to thrive in stressful circumstances, increases massively.
  3. Eye Contact: Once you are with your audience, actually make eye contact with individuals. You’re neither staring them out, nor blanking them out. It’s called non-threatening or non-confrontational eye contact- open and relaxed. You’re taking them in and inviting an intimate connection. Also, spending just 2 seconds of this kind of eye contact causes the body to release oxytocin, known as the social-bonding hormone. Don’t let the audience become a face-less mass. They’re much scarier that way. They’re not the opposition. They’re just a group of people that your’re having a conversation with. Ah, well that’s easy then.

These will change the way that you feel, without your brain having to do any work. This is ideal, because your brain is going to be working plenty during the presentation. So, give it a rest just before.

It’s so important to feel comfortable before your audience. Try these exercises out. If your body is in a constant state of high arousal, ready to fight, freeze or flee the scene, it kind of throws a spanner in the works of you being able to really connect, build rapport and deliver your message effectively- the hallmarks of any worthwhile presentation. Just remember, it’s important, sure, but it’s not life or death.

To chat about this more, ask away

by Chris Wickenden, 18th February, 2019

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