“Just imagine they’re all naked” is possibly the worst advice that has ever been given. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure the only thing more nerve-wracking than speaking in front of a group of people, would be speaking in front of a group of naked people.
Recently, I did a demonstration for a group that I belong to. I was extra nervous because I would not only be speaking, I would be speaking while making a glass pendant over an open flame. It seemed like there was a lot of potential for things to go wrong. However, it went pretty well. I was a little shaky, but I managed to pull it off without serious injury or embarrassment. The the time I was done, I realized that I have learned a lot over the years about how to deal with the nerves and be myself with an audience. On my journey from a whispering, stammering, shaking teenager to a fairly entertaining adult, I have come up with three cardinal rules, and I thought I might share them with you.
1. Don’t pretend you’re fine. I think one of the most destructive things you can do is try to ignore your anxiety. When you try to push a fear away, or deny it, you never actually deal with it and, more often than not, it pops up right before you are due to speak with a vengeance. My mother prefers to change “nervous” to “excited” in her mind. So instead of thinking “I’m so nervous about tomorrow,” she says “I’m so excited about tomorrow!” I don’t bother with semantics, I just own it. Unless it is completely inappropriate, I will start any speech with some sort of acknowledgement of my jitters, usually as a joke. So many people are afraid of speaking to a group that they will have sympathy if you just fess up at the outset. For example, I started my demo last week by saying “You’ll have to pardon me. This is my first demo in front of a large group and I’m pretty nervous. If I start dropping things or accidentally set myself on fire, those are not required steps. You don’t have to try and duplicate them at home.” Everybody laughed, the guy running the video camera promised to put me out if I caught fire, and a lot of my tension diffused. They say “Start with a joke,” well I say turn your fears into that joke.
2. Know your stuff, but don’t over-rehearse. Obviously it’s important to know what you’re going to say. My worst public speaking disasters are the result of thinking “I know the subject pretty well, I’ll just wing it.” Those days usually end with a lot of stammering and sweating. Still, I really hate writing out a whole speech. What works best for me is to come up with a general outline of what I want to say with a few key lines written out and/or memorized so I sound good.
If you are more comfortable writing everything out beforehand, don’t over-rehearse. The dangers here are twofold. The first issue is aesthetic. If you drill a presentation to death, it will probably come across stilted and rushed. You lose a sense of what you are trying to say because it becomes a group of words that you need to say in the right order. The other danger is more practical. You get so hung up on saying the words just the right way, that if you drop a word or sentence it can derail your whole speech. Again, over-practicing turns a sentence into a group of words in a particular order. You can get so hung up on the word that got dropped, you forget what was supposed to come next. Practice enough that you are comfortable, but leave yourself some room to be flexible.
3. What’s the worst that could happen? This is a game I play before a presentation – usually the night before while I am staring at the ceiling and wishing I could sleep. Stage fright, for all that it is tied up with a specific event, is actually a pretty vague thing. Ask yourself what, exactly, you are afraid of. In most circumstances there are no real consequences if you give a bad speech. Will people throw things at you? No. Will they hate you after? No. Will someone run up from the audience and punch you in the face? No. Will you pass out, throw up or urinate on the stage? Highly unlikely. Typically, the worst thing that could happen is that you feel a little embarrassed. We all get embarrassed from time to time and, to my knowledge, it has never killed anyone.
If there are possible negative consequences, if you’re defending a thesis for example, then your best bet is to face your fear and do some reassuring. You will not forget everything you’ve ever known. Your professors have seen nervous grad students before. By the time you have written your dissertation and are ready to defend it, you have been living with your subject for so long, and studying it in enough depth, that you will be fine. At that point, you probably know more about the subject than anyone in the room. My mother, who gets nervous about giving a birthday toast, said it was the easiest presentation she had ever given.
My last piece of advice is simple: Enjoy yourself. The more fun you have, the more fun your audience will have, and a group of people who are having fun will forgive all sorts of mistakes.