Four things to think through to help banish nerves before giving a talk. (At the bottom of this post find out about entering Famelab and free training with me on Thursday 1st Feb in Edinburgh.)
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…
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.
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.
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 expertise. Even in an hour long talk you will know fare more than you are able to share.
So remember, you are the expert and you know your material. All you have to do is share it, talk to people about something you like and that’s an easy and enjoyable thing to do.
You’re not trapped, it might feel that way but you’re not. If you really can’t do it then you will be able to leave, no one will drag you forcefully on stage. There is some reason that you want to be there or be should be there. There is opportunity or advantage to be had. It might be a career progression opportunity, you might want to raise the profile of yourself or your work, you might even just enjoy the attention or performing. Embrace the opportunity.
When I was nervous before my competition I remembered this and the nerves left me. I’d registered to take part – no one made me. I had chosen my topics – no one made me. I had headed to the venue on the day – no one made me. I wanted to be there, so why was a scared of something I wanted to be part of? The nerves left me. I wasn’t scared, I was doing exactly what I wanted and I was going to enjoy it.
Take a deep breath and remember
Control: You are in control, the presentation will run the way you want it to run.
Success: The audience are on your side. They want you to do well, you are walking into a supportive environment.
Knowledge: You know your stuff. The organiser and audience believe in you.
Choice: You want to be there. Somewhere deep down you want to be there, don’t be scared of something you want.
These are my strategies to keep calm, maybe you have your own comment below whether you agree or disagree and share some of your own nerve battling strategies.
Famelab the international science communication competition is back for 2017. You can find your local UK heat here.
If you are based in Edinburgh the heats are on Wednesday 14th of February. I will be running a free introductory training session 4-6pm on Thursday the 1st of February. For info see here.
If you are based in Glasgow the heats are on Tuesday 20th of February.