Calm your public speaking nerves

by | 8 Mar, 2018 | 1 comment

Your mind is primed to give a great class or talk, but your body is threatening to betray you. Helpful public speaking advice evaporates, because physically you feel that you're about to have a nerve-induced meltdown. Sound familiar?

Some simple techniques can help trick your body into calming those nervous feelings and channelling pre-talk anxiety into something positive.

Shake it out

I once participated in a workshop with a highly engaging facilitator who literally leapt – yep, jumped – into his classroom, loudly wishing everyone a theatrically cheery ‘good morning!’ to kick things off. He seemed so confident, you never would have guessed he struggled with nerves. Later, he confided that his over-egged entrance was actually a deliberate move to reduce his anxiety. Moving around the room, launching your presentation with a big friendly wave, or shaking it out can help dissipate nervous tension in your body. Physical activity is good for anxiety in general – try going for a run in the morning of the day of your presentation, or fitting in a short brisk walk before class to release those endorphins.

The silly effect

If you’re secretly thinking, ‘that facilitator in the anecdote sounds like somewhat of a buffoon’, that was probably a deliberate ploy too! He may have been tapping into another technique Patrick Allan describes in this Lifehacker article – get weird! ‘Act in a way you normally wouldn’t before you go out in front of people…making funny faces, singing a song in an obnoxious voice, or dancing around like an imbecile. I do this because it helps me remind myself that I’m in control of how embarrassed or scared I feel.’ Of course you can’t usually do these things during your talk, but you can let a little of your inner silly shine through. (For the record, the rest of the guy’s presentation was personable and very polished – not buffoonish at all.)

Try a power pose

Standing like Wonder Woman to calm nerves? While the scientific validity of the ‘power pose effect’ has recently been questioned, ‘expansive postures’ have been shown to at least help people to feel more powerful. Rather than cowering away and making yourself small when you’re feeling nervous, make your physical presence as big as possible. Stand and lift your arms over your head, put your hands on your hips or while sitting, sling your arm over the back of your chair – whatever expansive body language you can get away with in your situation. (If necessary, find a private place to go and hold some of these poses before you speak.)

Stress can be helpful

Try reframing your attitude to feelings of stress. The physical symptoms associated with stress (heart pounding, hands shaking, dry mouth, need I go on) are not your body betraying you. According to psychologist Kelly McGonigal, they might just mean your body is helping you get ready to focus, meet the challenge and give it your all. Accept that nerves are normal and nothing bad in of themselves. Even really good public speakers experience these feelings – and this is probably part of what makes them really good speakers.


Find another emotion

If you get nervous before speaking, your actual presentation / speech / class can begin to feel like a huge, meaningless, awful chore that has been forced upon you. Instead of fixating on ‘just getting this next hour out of the way’, try to find an emotional connection to what you will be speaking about. Why are you actually making the choice to do this presentation? (It’s always a choice!) Do you want to share your passion for your fascinating subject area? Is this class going to make a difference in people’s lives, your students’ learning, or your own career? Or are you fired up to make a point? What will you or your audience actually miss out on if you chicken out and don’t speak? Finding a motivating emotion other than fear to focus on can help create different feelings in your body – whether that’s joy, excitement, determination, or even a little anger.

Prepare, practise, and breathe.

You’ll find these last three in almost any public speaking tips listicle, but it’s worth mentioning them anyway. Prior preparation doesn’t just improve your performance, it actually makes you less nervous. Grab hold of opportunities to practise public speaking – the more you do it, the easier it gets. And remember to breathe – the simplest and most effective trick of all.

Stress and anxiety is an issue for many of us, and you might want to find out about the support available to manage it from UTS Health and Wellbeing. (UTS students should check out counselling and other programs available from the Counselling Service).







1 Comment

  1. Shiva Iyer

    Does sound familiar. I’m a shaky starter when it comes to public speaking. Jogging and breathing does help to relax my mind and calm down the nerves. And also prior preparation is the key.


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