by Roger A. Reid
You’ve seen them. Calm and collected, they rise from their chair and walk to the front of the room with an expression of absolute confidence. They take the mic, look out over the audience, and then . . . Magic.
The words just seem to flow.
These are the people who know just what to say and how to say it—and they can do it in front of any size group. They don’t appear to need preparation, and welcome any opportunity to speak. It’s as if they’ve found the secret to being confident as well as eloquent when all eyes and ears are on them.
Want to know the truth? Ninety-nine percent of all public speakers admit to fighting a case of nerves when facing an audience—no matter how many presentations they’ve done. Some book authors have passed out at the podium, and many business owners admit they’re scared to death as they step up to face the crowd. Some even relate personal stories of hiding in the bathroom until the last minute so no one can see them doing push-ups to calm a nervous stomach.
So when you see that guy or gal walk to the front of the room in complete confidence, the overwhelming probability is their stomach is doing flip-flops, their heart is pounding like a jack-hammer, and they’re hoping no one can see the beads of sweat running down the back of their neck.
So how are they able to project a picture of calm assurance?
In truth, their collected and professional appearance is part of the presentation. In other words, they realize their speech starts from the very moment their name is called, and as they rise from their chair, it’s already fully underway. By presenting an image of confidence, they’re portraying a sense of personal authority that sets the mood for what comes next.
I know what you’re thinking . . .
If professional speakers have to fight butterflies in their stomachs, how am I ever going to control my nerves to the point I can say something without looking like I’m scared to death?
It’s all about getting those butterflies to fly in formation.
The Secret of Controlling Your Nerves
Speakers make great speeches not in spite of their nerves, but because of them. They’ve learned to harness all that nervous energy and use it to their advantage. In fact, most welcome the rush of adrenaline as they hear their name. They know how to channel and direct it to energize their presentation and to make them a better presenter than they could ever be without it.
As I said before, a rise in energy level just before giving any kind of performance is a common occurrence. Even after hundreds or even thousands of presentations, many of the very best speakers still admit to having the jitters before walking on stage. As they hear their name called to take the microphone, they feel their pulse quicken, their stomach tighten—just like they did the very first time. But now, they not only expect it, they welcome it. In fact, they depend on that surge of nervous energy to ensure their level of performance is enthusiastic, in-the-moment, and meets their standards of professional delivery.
How do you convert your fear into excitement? By assuring yourself you need that nervous energy to boost the delivery of your presentation. It becomes an expected and reliable tool to give you that something “extra” that makes people sit up and pay attention.
Here are five steps you can take to turn those feelings of dread into positive energy and enthusiasm:
Practice your delivery until you can do it in your sleep. Make sure you’ve prepared the content of your speech right down to the last pause and period. That may sound like I’m pointing out the obvious, but you can’t imagine the number of people who believe they can make their first speech by jotting down a few notes on a dozen index cards and winging it. Unless they have previous experience in front of an audience, they typically end up forgetting half of what they planned to say, ramble through a disconnected thought or two, and fill in the embarrassing silence with lots of “ands” and “ah’s.” Worse, I’ve heard a few actually apologize by saying, “I wish I’d practiced more,” or “Sorry I’m doing such a poor job at this.”
Being prepared—knowing you’re ready—raises your confidence. You can’t fail because you can do it in your sleep. Even if your brain begins to shut down, your memory will feed the words to your mouth because you’ve practiced so many times that it’s become second nature.
The key is to practice until you can launch into your speech from any point in the beginning, middle, or end without needing to think about what came before or after. In other words, you know exactly what you’re going to say by heart, and can deliver it on demand. How much practice is enough? Depends. Everyone is different. For me, the magic number is about fifty rehearsals. Yes, I could do it with less drill, but that degree of preparation gives me the latitude to stop, start, go off-topic, accommodate a question from the audience, then resume my place in the presentation as if the interruption never happened.
Don’t forget to breathe. I discounted this advice for years, not understanding the connection between the body, brain, and the importance of deep, rhythmic breathing. Taking deep, controlled breaths is a relaxation technique inherent to most meditative practices. It can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and stress levels. Not surprisingly, irregular, shallow breathing can add additional stress, making your situation even worse. Incorporating a series of deep breaths during the final minutes prior to your presentation will provide you with a natural, easy-to-activate method of lowering your stress, calming your mind, and sharpening your mental reflexes. Remember to use it!
Imagine the worst that could happen. Then ask yourself, “What are the odds?” I had a business colleague who approached each speaking opportunity with the idea that if everything went to hell—if he completely forgot what he was going to say and was booed off the stage—it wouldn’t matter, because life would still go on. His friends would forgive him, strangers wouldn’t care, and a week later, very few would even remember what happened. So in a worst-case scenario, he would live to speak again. With this thought firmly in place, he would ask himself, “What are the odds of forgetting my presentation and looking like a complete idiot?” He knew they were about zero. Even experienced speakers will have an occasional memory lapse, but they fill in the missing information from the context of their subject, or simply move on to the next part of their speech. So the odds of a total mental meltdown are next to nil.
The outcome of this mind game? Knowing his worst-case performance was too remote a possibility to actually happen, neutralized his fear. Sure, he might fumble over a phrase or forget a reference or a quote, but if he did, he was prepared to ask his audience for help. By approaching his presentation based on what he knew he could do, it eliminated his fear about what he would never do.
The result? A natural, flowing rhetoric that seemed spontaneous and appropriate for the occasion and the crowd.
Tell your brain what it needs to hear. If you feel like you’re on the point of losing it (passing out, throwing up, or freezing) and you’re already behind the podium or in front of your audience, tell them how excited you are to be there, and you’re really looking forward to hearing their feedback after you finish.
Use these exact words and notice what happens. Most beginning speakers experience an immediate change in physical state, allowing them to move forward and continue with their presentation.
If possible, meet members of the audience beforehand. That way, you’re not speaking to a room full of strangers. Just before you move to the front of the room or take the stage, try to locate where they’re sitting and direct the initial part of your presentation to them, as if they are the only ones you’re speaking to.
Finally, don’t even think about using alcohol or drugs to “take the edge off.” There are plenty who’ve tried it and they end up regretting it. It’s like trying to get the maximum performance out of a sports car after poking holes in the tires.
How important is the ability to speak in public? Responding to a speaking request can boost your career, increase your standing in the community, and enhance your personal credibility and social status. Answering a request to make a comment or two will get you remembered as someone who rose to the occasion, didn’t hesitate, and had the courage to take the lead.
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