Presentation Skills

How to handle Public Speaking Nerves

By 14th June 2013 No Comments


Have you ever been asked to deliver a talk or presentation and found yourself spiralling into an abyss of nerves and uncertainty on the run up?


Perhaps it was the 10 minutes before, the hour or maybe even the whole day or week?!


It might have been a wedding speech, a meeting you had to take or a more formal presentation in your job. There really is nothing like a bit of public speaking to get the blood flowing for most people.


One of the most commonly asked questions we get regarding public speaking is how to handle the nerves. How to be more confident and comfortable….How to stop the million and one voices shouting in your head on the run up to starting speaking!?


While there are lots of NLP techniques and ways you can use your imagination to prepare your frame and state of mind that really help, the main thing for me is experience. The techniques really help let go of the deep seated fear to let your natural, confident self shine through and the experience cements all these changes in place.


Another aspect that a lot of people forget though is being able to speak calmly and confidently even while you are feeling nervous.


Of course, the end goal is to reach the place where you don’t feel the nerves or (what is more often the case) where they are at such a minimum they hardly affect you. At the same time it’s equally if not more important to be able to get up and deliver a confident, killer talk or presentation while you feel nervous.


Most people forget about this middle ground but it actually makes up most of your early experience as a speaker (and a lot of the time for more experienced ones even though they probably don’t want to admit it!)


About 3 years ago I was asked to be Best Man at one of my mates wedding. When he first asked I was more than a little cocky. I had a lot of experience delivering training and also, being a member of the public speaking organisation ‘Toastmasters’, I knew how to design and deliver short talks and presentations.


An  8- 10 minute best man speech would be a piece of cake right? Ehm, not really…


In actual fact it has to rank as one of the most terrifying talks I’ve ever given.


Well, that’s not strictly true. It ranks as one of the most terrifying and nervous ‘run ups’ to a talk I’ve ever had. The actual speech was easy but the build up was wobbly to say the least.


On the morning of the wedding I was very confident. I’d done all my preparation and I knew my speech inside out. I knew the content was good and was convinced it would get both some good laughs and, at the same time, touch a few emotional nerves.


During the ceremony everything was fine. I felt comfortable and relaxed and pretty certain things were going to go well. It wasn’t until just after that the nerves kicked in.


The problem I had strangely enough was that everyone knew I had a fair amount of public speaking experience. It’s amazing how as human beings we generalise and distort information (I think the drinks also had a fair amount to do with it).


What started as people saying to me “Hey I hear you run training courses so this should be a bit easier for you”  quickly changed after multiple drinks to “Hey I hear you’re an after dinner speaker! And do some stand comedy so this should be a breeze!”.


Where the heck did they get that from!


That’s when the nerves started…suddenly the pressure was on. Not only was the speech being filmed and all my friends were going to be there it seemed the audience were expecting a super polished, hilariously funny after dinner speaker!


It amazes me what nerves can do to you. The walk out to the top table was like some weird dream where I was dissociated from my body. As I sat down my legs had turned to jelly, my mouth was like sand paper and my mind was a blur. I don’t use any notes when I speak so i’d decided to do the full 10 minutes speech completely from memory. In that moment though I was cursing myself for not bringing a piece of paper to read from and, more importantly, hide behind.


The strange thing was, even though I felt as nervous as I’d been since I started public speaking and giving presentations at some deep level I knew I’d get through it. I think this is where the experience comes in. Once you’ve given a few talks and presentations irrespective of the nervous feelings you feel you start to realise that you will live actually through it! In fact, you can in fact still get the job done pretty damn well!


You learn how to feel solid and strong at the same time as feeling nervous.


A lot of people think you are either nervous or confident. That it’s like a digital switch that’s either on one side or the other when that’s simply not the case. You can actually feel confident, strong and comfortable at the same time as feeling nervous.


Obviously it’s much nicer when the nerves aren’t there but I think it’s a much more useful skill to maintain strength and balance while feeling nervous. Unless you speak a lot then this will make up a large part of your speaking experience.


So anyway, back to the speech. After the groom finished his speech and kindly told the audience that I had started taking acting lessons so they should expect an impressive showing (thanks Derek!) I stood up and started talking. The first line contained a joke and, when I spoke it, the audience burst into laughter. I knew right then that, despite my anxious fretting, it was going to go well. It was such a friendly vibe and you could tell everyone was willing me to be funny and entertaining.


What I had convinced myself was going to be one my toughest audiences actually turned out to be one of the easiest and most compliant ones I’ve ever spoken to.


The speech went down a storm. I like to think I did my duty well and suitably humiliated the groom in a respectful manner while complimenting the bride and touching a few emotional nerves along the way.


When I think back it certainly stands out as one of the biggest buzzes I’ve had from public speaking but the main learning was how important it is to get experience standing firm irrespective of the nerves.


So if you’re asked to give a talk or presentation and find yourself slipping into the nervous abyss, realise that no chasm is bottomless. An ‘Abyss’ doesn’t really exist, it’s just a word created for fantasy novels. Every hole or pit has solid grounding within it and around it. Go ahead, look around and reach out…You’ll catch a hold of something solid and regain your balance soon enough.


Take Care