Feeling Nervous?

Four things to help banish nerves before giving a talk.

A spotlight shines on a red curtain on a stage

Shaking hands, shaking voice, blank mind, stomach churning – nerves before a talk can be crippling. What’s worse is more you focus on it the more the symptoms amplify. Before long stepping out in front of your audience is a terrifying prospect. This can be true no matter if it is a conference presentation, a science show, wedding speech or just a meeting with some colleagues. It is difficult to predict when nerves will strike, but you can be prepared for when the do.

I’ve spent the past 10 years teaching, presenting and in training others how to do the same. I am at home on stage, it is one of my favourite places to be but I didn’t start out that way.

Once, back stage during a competition, I felt myself getting nervous. I knew I was going to underperform. My hands were shaking and I knew the judges would hear the quiver in my voice. I was going to lose if I didn’t calm myself down. I started thinking about why I was there and the environment I was walking into and I came up with four points which helped…

Control

Conversations are dynamic and this makes them difficult. When you chat to someone they say something, you say something back – you never know what twists and turns it will take. Presentations on the other hand are easier and safer. You’ll decide how things run and to a large extent how the audience will behave. You are in charge and being in charge makes it a safe and comforting space.

Imagine you are sitting in a science show, the presenter approaches the edge of the stage and scans their eyes across the audience before coming to rest on you. They say “Excuse me, could you do me a favour please – I’d like you to put your right hand in the air please” would you do it? I’m willing to bet you would. You might not know why, you might not even particular want to, but it is easier just to go along with it. Social convention says you should.

Now imagine half way through a science show the person sitting next to you taps you and says the same thing “Excuse me, could you do me a favour please – I’d like you to put your right hand in the air please”, would you do it? This would be much more unusual and without you knowing why you probably wouldn’t’ be willing to disrupt things for the stranger.

So what does this tell us? To me is says the person on stage is in charge and the audience will, as long as you are confident and competent, will go along with it. The audience will behave the way you expect or the way in which you ask them to. No one will stand up mid talk to argue or say you are wrong, as long as you hold the floor people will respect that. You are in control and this is comforting.

Nerves are for times where there is danger, uncertainty and risk but a stage is a safe, controlled and predictable environment.


Success

Have you ever seen a bad comedian? It is a painful experience to watch someone’s joke fall flat but for them to plough on regardless amid a silent audience. What solace can this nightmare scenario hold for the nervous performer? It tells us that the audience are on our side.

If a performance is bad, the audience have a bad time. It is uncomfortable to watch someone do badly on stage, so you will be walking in to a supportive environment. The people in front of you are willing you and wishing for you to do well, if only for their own enjoyment. Taking a deep breath and remembering that you are walking into a supportive environment can really help to banish the nerves. The audience are on your side, you just have share your story with them.

Knowledge

Remember there is a reason you are speaking. Someone has belief in you, your knowledge and abilities to do this. The people in your audience are there because they want to hear from you. Chances are you are speaking about something you know about, you’ve maybe even picked the topic yourself.

In most cases you when you are on stage you are there because you know more about the topic than most of the room. You are the expert. Especially true if you are talking about your own work – no one, not a single person can claim to know more about what you do day in, day out than you.

Trust in your knowledge, it’s all in there. My viva was over 4 hours long and still they hadn’t exhausted my knowledge. You could talk for hours on your favourite topics or your area of expert