Public speaking nerves

Many authors are nervous about public speaking, not least because they may have never done it before. I was quite lucky as I went through the pain of learning how to speak in public when I was at school. I attended a girl’s school up to the age of 16, but the debating society was run in conjunction with several other schools, meaning we could meet and mingle with the opposite sex. It was therefore a popular extra-curricular activity. The first time I rose to make a comment from the floor, the butterflies seemed to be eating my stomach, the whole room had become hot and clammy, and my voice seemed to come out as if it was coming from somewhere else. I felt faint as I sat down.

Nowadays, nerves are usually just a slightly fluttery, light-headed feeling about 5 minutes before I’m due to start. I deal with this before giving work presentations by nipping to the Ladies and having a quiet couple of minutes gathering my presense of mind before venturing forth. Conferences can be difficult, especially when they want to wire you up while the previous speaker is on and there is still some time to go. I prefer it when the PA is fixed, or with no PA at all. I had to address very large halls as a debater without a PA and therefore worked my voice projection up to a good standard.

If public speaking nerves are getting to you I recommend you try a number of things, and see what works for you:

1. Make sure you’re prepared, practiced and use pauses. I used to write it all down on note cards, annotating with pauses. I would then practice several times. Pauses force you to slow down, give your brain a chance to think, and make your words more impactful.

2. Even for off the cuff, have some notes. I now tend to speak mostly off the cuff, but I always, always have notes with me. There are there as a back-up, just in case the worst happens and my mind goes blank. Having a crutch you can switch to, if the nerves are winning, will help and will make you feel better and in control.

3. Slow down and breathe deeply. Nerves can make you feel light-headed and your breathing come in short. Make sure you keep speaking slowly and breathing properly.

4. Before you start, try a mantra. I have a little mantra in French I say before speaking and before walking into rooms with strangers. At the same time I imagine the Three Musketeers when they say their motto of “one for all and all for one” and raise their swords. If they can do it, so I can I.

5. Before you start, distract yourself. Having a quick chat with someone before I start helps me forget I’m about to speak, and therefore seems to help keep nerves at bay. If you don’t feel like waiting in the room while everyone comes in, no one is forcing you to be there – go elsewhere.

6. Check out the room first. And decide where you’ll stand/sit (if you have a choice). If you’re the only speaker, and you want the furniture rearranged – do it! For imformal talks I like sitting on tables combined with a bit of walking around. I don’t like being stuck sat down behind a desk. But if being behind the desk/lecturn makes you feel better, do it.

7. Dress cleverly and comfortably. Authors are supposed to be creative individuals and therefore, you can wear what you want, but I’d suggest wearing something with a bit of flair and colour because being all in dark, drab colours is draining on most people and will mean that your audience looks only at your face. Distracting them with a wonderful jacket, piece of jewellery or high-heels, will take the pressure off a bit.

8. Work towards being warm, inclusive and use open body language. All my nerves go once I know I’ve bonded with my audience. This is because I know they’ll forgive me if I do say something stupid or mediocre after that.

9. Decide whether you want to be interupted with questions or have them at the end. I like being interupted with questions, as this helps me with point 8, but if I have a short slot and a lot to cover, I’d leave questions to the end as that is better than being distracted into losing too much time and then having to rush and/or cut valuable material. I would recommend, until you are used to dealing with questions so that they can no longer throw you, having them at the end.



Filed under author events, books, events, public speaking, talks and readings

2 responses to “Public speaking nerves

  1. Good advice that applies both to authors and to business executives and other leaders who benefit from speaking in public.

    One other item that can help fight the jitters — remember why you are there. Whether your goal is to enlighten, entertain, or simply to sell books, keep that goal in mind.

    A slight quibble with point #5, where you recommend, “If you don’t feel like waiting in the room while everyone comes in, no one is forcing you to be there – go elsewhere.” A speaker can buy lots of friends with a quick word and a smile as the audience files in. This welcoming gesture can earn you not only a crowd of friendly faces (which certainly helps in the confidence department), but also additional book buyers.

    Ed Barks
    Author of The Truth About Public Speaking: The Three Keys to Great Presentations

  2. Good Advice.

    For me, the best way was to get my self on the podium as often as possible. One of my first speaking coach used to say “Never Make Your First Time Be Your First Time” I think that is a great advice. Overcoming fear of public speaking mean having the courage to speak in public.

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