Friday, November 12, 2010

"I'm not nervous when I speak, but...": Why it's okay to be nervous

I hear this line more than almost any other when I'm coaching women about public speaking: "I'm not at all nervous when I speak, but...."  And here's what comes next:
  • "...I get out of breath right away and my heart beats fast."
  • "...I can feel myself blushing, almost as soon as I start to talk."
  • "...I talk too fast--I can cram 30 syllables into the space of two."
  • "...I start to perspire, and feel really uncomfortable."
"But," they always add, "I'm not at all nervous."

"Okay," I usually say. "Then it must be that your mind is not talking to your body, because your body sure sounds me."

One thing I've learned about training executives in public speaking and presentation skills is that part of my role is to make it okay to be nervous about speaking.   I'm not sure when we all decided that being nervous when you speak is wrong (similar to when we all decided that saying "um" is wrong).  Just as speech disfluency (a fancy word for stumbles like "ums") is natural and normal in all languages, being nervous when you speak, too, is natural and normal.

How do we know everyone fears public speaking?

We sure talk a lot about how everyone fears public speaking more than death, even though the most-often cited evidence comes from a simple item with no footnotes in The Book of Lists. (The list famously put public speaking as the number one fear, and death at number 7.)  But there's plenty of evidence to suggest that most people feel some level of anxiety before they address a group in a presentation or speech, particularly if they don't do that on a regular basis--and even if they do.  Psychologists use public speaking when they're researching stress, as a task that can generally be expected to result in physical and mental stress in most of their research subjects, so let's use that as our marker.

The real phenomenon underlying fear-while-speaking is one of the most basic human reactions, fight-or-flight response. It makes sense, as many speakers have pointed out:  There you are, typically alone, facing a crowd. The hormones that kick in mean your body is telling you, "Be ready. What if they charge forward and attack?"

The fear really is physical

Fight-or-flight response kicks in physically--in fact, you can think of it as your body kicking you in the shins, so to speak, to say, "Danger ahead!"  Even the most expert speakers will describe themselves as having a kind of heightend focus and awareness; some of the physiological reactions in fight-or-flight include things like diminished peripheral vision, as it's a time when you want to focus on what's facing you head-on.  So it's no surprise to me that my trainees often describe public-speaking nervousness by describing physical symptoms.

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to reduce your physical response to public-speaking nerves.  As I described in an earlier post on when the speaker needs to catch her breath, the "relaxation response" practice of deep breathing to calm yourself.  And while a little deep breathing while you're speaking or right before you speak can help, the "relaxation response" is best done over time, so that when nerves strike, your body has an alternative method of responding to stress.  (Find the how-to in the book The Relaxation Response.)  At a minimum, find 10 minute before you speak to do some deep breathing, stretch your body and calm down--I like a handy, empty stairwell or side hallway for this purpose.

Your mind has something to do with it, too

I think speakers are making it tougher on themselves when they say "I'm not nervous."  Facing an audience is embarrassing in many ways.  You're alone. You're visible to all. You can fail in three dimensions. There's nowhere to hide. Authors and writers can be anonymous if they choose, but that's nearly impossible for speakers--something I think every speaker senses.  You've literally "put yourself out there," physically as well as aurally and mentally.  No one needs to tell you this, of course.

So accept that. Tell yourself that before you speak. Make it normal and natural: "I know I'll be nervous and I'm going to do things to help combat the physical reaction--and I'm going to take advantage of the pluses of nervousness, too."

Your ace in the hole

The audience can't usually tell that you are nervous. Remind yourself not to clue them in, and you can fake your way right through the presentation.

Let's make it normal to be nervous

There's one more thing I'm sensing:  The more we say "I'm not nervous, but....", the more we're making it difficult for anyone (ourselves included) to admit to being nervous. How about "I'm nervous about doing well today, so I'm going to go in the hallway and do my usual prep so my body doesn't sabotage me?"

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