Mastering your Nerves
Toastmasters have produced a very useful guide to managing and even making use of fear in your speaking, the workshop Controlling your Fear.
It is common for both experienced and beginning speakers to be nervous about giving a speech.
The difference is that the experienced speaker knows how to control this nervousness and use it to enhance the speech. By understanding the causes and symptoms of the fear, a speaker can harness that seemingly negative energy and channel it toward a positive outcome. The experienced speaker also knows how to appear confident in front of an audience. To obtain a confident appearance, a seasoned orator applies the proper methods and techniques for relaxation.
The following are known to trigger anxiety:
New and unknown situations – New experiences are stressful. The inability to anticipate the unforeseen causes high levels of anxiety.
Risk of failure – From childhood to adulthood, we dream of success, victory, and achievement. To not finish first or be the best often increases nervousness and anxiety.
Potential for appearing foolish – Beyond achieving goals, we all want to appear circumspect in the way we accomplish our goals. No one wants to suffer disgrace. The possibility of
embarrassment causes great fear and panic.
Possibility of boring the audience – A speaker’s hope is to engage and enamor the audience. The fear of not connecting with the audience, of being considered boring, brings about insecurity, apprehension, and worry.
When confronted with a situation that causes anxiety, the body responds by increasing the flow of adrenaline. Adrenaline causes the heart to beat faster. Extra blood and oxygen rush to the muscles and brain. This natural rush provides extra energy that enables quick responses, but it also can have some less desirable effects:
Increased heart rate
Butterflies in the stomach
Anxiety is common to all speakers who are concerned about their performance. This nervous energy is valuable if used properly. The key is learning to manage it. There are three major methods
for handling anxiety:
Experience – Studies show that one of the best methods for reducing anxiety is practice.
Repeatedly giving speeches reduces fear and helps to build confidence. After speaking a few times, you begin to put your anxiety into perspective. Try these techniques to gain experience:
■■ Practice in front of a mirror.
■■ Rehearse in front of family and friends.
■■ Deliver a speech before your Toastmasters club.
■■ Give presentations before other groups, anywhere you can.
Visualization – Research shows that vividly imagined events are recorded as memories. To the brain and central nervous system, these memories are indistinguishable from actual experiences.
Thought processes cause physiological changes that affect performance.
Mentally rehearsing employs thought processes to achieve positive results. Close your eyes as you mentally walk yourself through the following scenario, vividly imagining each action:
1. You are introduced to an audience.
2. You walk up to the lectern confidently, smiling to people as you pass.
3. You breathe deeply several times before beginning to speak. (As you imagine this, take deep breaths.)
4. You speak clearly and forcefully, remembering all of the points you wanted to make.
5. You captivate your audience with your words, gestures, and vocal variety.
6. When you finish, the audience applauds in appreciation.
Repeat this visualization until your confidence has increased and your anxiety has decreased.
Relaxation – Because the mind and body are connected, feelings often affect the body physically. As anxiety builds, so does physical stress. Relaxation and breathing techniques alleviate physical tension and calm the mind. Isometric exercises reduce stress by increasing circulation and the flow of oxygen to the brain. Practice these techniques to reduce tension:
■■ Focus on areas of concentrated tension, such as the shoulders. Tighten your muscles there for a few seconds and then release. Systematically do the same for each major muscle group, starting with the feet and working up to the facial muscles.
■■ Stand, inhale and stretch your arms toward the ceiling. Then exhale as you bend to touch your toes, keeping your knees straight. (Only bend as far as you comfortably can.) Repeat
this several times.
■■ Hold your arms out to the sides, parallel to the floor and rotate them in small circles, first forward 10 times, then backward 10 times.
■■ Drop your head to your chest, rolling it to the right, to the back, to the left, then forward again. Repeat this several times. Then reverse the procedure, rolling your head first to
■■ Breathe from the diaphragm. This reduces shortness of breath and supports your voice for better projection and resonance. To learn to breathe correctly, lie on your back with a book
on your stomach. Take a deep breath. The book rises as your diaphragm expands. As you exhale, the book should go back down.
Even after practicing and mentally rehearsing your speech, it’s normal to feel somewhat nervous before your presentation. You want some adrenaline flowing to help you speak energetically.
Keep in mind that your audience likely won’t notice your nervousness. Audiences are often unaware of the signs the speaker thinks are embarrassingly obvious. If you walk and speak confidently,
the audience will not know that your palms are sweaty and your heart is pounding.
The next time you are about to give a speech, as your heart pounds, you have butterflies in your stomach and your knees quiver, turn your anxiety into positive energy using the methods discussed.
Your audience will be impressed with your confidence and listen to every word you say.