Harnessing Nerves in Public Speaking

Public Speaking - 6 reasons why reading a speech is a bad idea
Reading a speech – 6 reasons why it’s a bad idea

Harnessing Nerves in Public Speaking

Harnessing nerves in public speaking

The art of public speaking – managing state.

Harnessing nerves in public speakingMost people approach speaking in public and presentations with some dread, and even the most experienced speakers probably get nervous before an important event. As we saw in last year’s  brilliant film, ‘The King’s Speech’ this affects even the most powerful people, and can also be dealt with.

Nerves are no bad thing: channeled effectively, that hormonal ‘rush’ can enhance performance – but we need to find ways to control them, rather than letting them make us or our audience feel uncomfortable.

The fight or flight response is a protective mechanism in human behaviour that acts as a warning system – alerting the human body to any impending danger through the production of physical symptoms such as raised pulse rate, sweaty palms, muscle tension or loss of focus.

Although we no longer need to go out and hunt for food, or face the enemy directly, we still carry this primal response within us and it is triggered off when we need to face public speaking situations where there is a perceived element of risk involved.

In fight or flight, the body is preparing us to do battle or run away. However, the key aspects that affect speaking in public are shallow breathing, and diverting of oxygenated blood to the extremities (our battling arms and running legs) and away from our brains (hence the muddled thinking). The tension that is associated with the fight or flight response also affects our voices, as relaxed and supported breathing is key to a strong and confident voice.

There are simple physical and psychological approaches that can help to make us look, sound and feel more confident.

Top tips to begin:

Physical approach for public speaking.

1. Practice letting go of unnecessary tension in the muscles. Key areas will include the shoulders, legs, neck and jaw.

2. Learn to breathe from deep in the body (using maximum lung capacity) rather than from the higher chest area.

3. Smile.

4. Rehearse: speak out loud, try different vocal dynamics and give the articulation muscles a chance to get used to any tricky words or phrases.

Psychological approach for public speaking.

1. Don’t let the need be too perfect override the relationship you create with the audience. It is more important to be authentic and comfortable than to be flawless, and it is hard to be in the moment if no human mistakes are allowed!

2. Focus on what the audience needs rather than your own state: see yourself as a facilitator (looking after the listeners) more than as a performer. This is a shared experience.

3. Know your purpose: define this clearly.

4. If you see positive reaction, it is probably truthful. Don’t try and second-guess ‘negative’ signals. You have no idea what is going on in that person’s life at this moment.

5. Take every opportunity to get up and do it. Say yes.

If you want to get a deeper understanding of the technical aspect of public speaking, find a good coach. The greatest speakers will have had coaching along the way.


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