Advice: Overcoming Speech Nerves

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Most of us are terrified of public speaking.  So how can we overcome those nerves in order to deliver a successful message to our audience?  Here are 10 ways to control fear before your next speech.

Preparation is key.  Saying, “I’m just going to wing it” will never, ever result in a successful speech.  Why?  Because knowing your material allows you to focus on your delivery and your audience instead of your content.  Now, there will always be places where impromptu speaking works.  I suggest incorporating elements of impromptu speaking in every single one of your presentations.  However, you must prepare and research your topic.  Know much more than you actually have time to say, and plan your introduction, body, and conclusion.  In his book Presentation Zen,  Garr Reynolds says this about preparation, “Without proper preparation of your material, you will not be able to be your natural self” (Source).

Recording yourself speaking is a great way to gain confidence in yourself.  This forces you to practice, and with the added presence of a camera, it almost gives you the same feeling an audience will.  It adds that extra touch of formality that speaking in front of a mirror does not have.  The best thing about recording your speech before you deliver it is that you can play your video back and watch yourself speaking.  What do you need to tweak about your delivery?  Are you overusing a word or phrase?  (Common words are “like,” “whatever,” “um,” or “uh.”)  Is there something you could change or rearrange with your content?  This is a great way to fine tune your message and yourself.

Your audience can never tell if you’re nervous.  Ever.  The only way we know is if you say, “I’m really nervous.”  So don’t admit it!  Saying, “I’m so nervous” before you begin your presentation means you are starting your speech on a negative note.  It also makes your audience “see” your nerves, and they’ll start to focus on that nervous energy instead of your message.  This also ties into making sure your audience is your central focus.  Does your audience benefit from knowing you are scared to present?  Absolutely not.  Don’t put the attention on you as a presenter – make your audience the center of attention.

The first part of your speech is the most important for your audience, but it’s also important for your confidence.  You have 0:30 or less to establish that connection with your audience, so practicing your introduction more than any other part of your speech will ensure you engage your audience.  But delivering a successful introduction will also help you as a presenter.  After the intro is finished, you’ll slip into “presentation mode” instead of “nervous mode,” and you’ll naturally focus on your message.  If your introduction is successful, your confidence will be up, you’ll be more excited and happy to be presenting, and your body and conclusion are more likely to run smoothly.

Practice in your head right before you give your speech.  It can help with those supernerves that appear a few minutes before your public speaking time.  Instead of concentrating on the supernerves, practice your speech in your head.  It will give you something to do and will help the speech content sound better when you deliver it.

Since you have to present louder across a larger forum than your everyday speaking voice is used to, practicing out loud can help you to be more comfortable with your speaking voice.  Of course, you don’t want to yell at your audience, and if you have a microphone, that helps projection even more.  However, if you’re microphoneless, be able to boom your voice across the entire room, and the only way to get this down is to practice.

Practicing out loud simply using your normal speaking voice helps, too.  Hearing the way your words sound out loud allows you to tweak phrases and rearrange content.  Think about writing a paper… You don’t always catch the mistakes when you read your own writing because your brain “reads” what you MEANT to say.  Speaking out loud helps you catch those mistakes before you accidentally say something crazy.

Focusing on yourself will always hurt your speech.  So just don’t do it!  There is no reason to obsess about your accent, your strained voice after an illness, your stained clothing, your botched haircut, or other superficial things that no one would ever notice except you.  Concentrating on yourself also defeats the purpose of your speech: connecting with your audience.  Your entire focus should be on your audience.

Breathing deeply will help you for many reasons.  It will help ensure you don’t pass out, too.  Shallow breaths prevent oxygen from reaching your brain, so you could faint when you stand up to deliver your speech.  Breathing deeply balances you, so try taking at least five deep breaths right before you begin your presentation.  Deep breathing exercises also help prevent anxiety.  Click here to read about more positive effects of deep breathing.

Make certain that you don’t channel your adrenaline into negative places.  Drinking and  drugs (prescription, over-the-counter, or illegal) will never help with your nerves.  This negative behavior will only result in slurred speech, awkward movements, and slower reaction time.  Your content will be off because your brain isn’t working at its normal pace.  To keep your adrenaline channeled to positive places, I would suggest using music.  Use calming songs if you want a more serene, relaxed delivery, and use upbeat songs if you want a more dynamic, energetic delivery.

We will all be a little scared of public speaking… no matter how many times we deliver a successful presentation.  This is because every audience is different, and every speaking engagement is different, so the adrenaline will always be present.  Think of all of the performers who admit they still have stage fright!

For more advice on finding your confidence before public speaking, try these tips from Toastmasters.  You can also check out Garr Reynolds’ tips here.

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