Books, training manuals and blog posts on speaking in public have a really bad habit of glossing over the issue of nerves. Even I did it in a post I wrote back in 2007. Here’s the advice I gave:
Accept that you are going to be nervous and embrace it. There will always be some degree of nervousness before a talk. Don’t dismiss it, don’t deny it, but use the nervous energy to drive you…
That’s not bad advice in itself, but the trouble is that it misses the point. Nerves have a nasty habit of causing your brain to perform sub-optimally (you know the story, the blood goes to the parts of the body that help you run away etc) and for many people this can be overwhelming. I know because, even as I wrote that advice back then, I suffered from the really bad nerves when public speaking and I didn’t know how to control them, never mind how to magically channel them to make me perform better.
The real way to overcome public speaking nerves
The good news is that I have found a solution that will very likely work for you if you suffer from the same thing. The further good news is that you probably know that the solution is – or at least it won’t be a surprise to you. The bad news is that it requires some concentrated and prolonged effort on your part. Booo.
The real way to overcome public speaking nerves is… to practice. (“Is that all?”, I hear you say) Well yes, but it’s not just any old practice — you need practice that stretches you and takes you out of your comfort zone. That means that standing up and presenting at your lab meeting or journal club, while useful, is not enough.
Set yourself a challenge
Earlier this year I set myself the challenge to rid myself of my public speaking bugbear by taking on as many public speaking assignments as I possibly could. I wrote previously about the virtues of Toastmasters International, a worldwide public speaking club that anyone can join, and much of the public speaking I have done this year has been at my local Toastmasters club. The good thing about Toastmasters is that it has a training program that is designed to take you out of your comfort zone (you can read more about that in my original article) and now I am on speech 5 of 10 in that program I am certainly feeling the benefit — I actually ENJOYED giving my most recent speech, which is big progress!
But aside from just following the Toastmasters program I have also actively sought out speech slots and (serendipitously!) been invited to talk at a few events in the last 6 months in all sorts of different settings. It’s been nerve-racking, but I am now getting to the stage where I am confident enough to control my nerves quite well. Thank goodness.
To illustrate a point, the best thing I did this year was to enter a humorous speech contest at Toastmasters. Humorous speaking is not something I would ever have considered doing, but in line with my challenge to myself I jumped in there and actually surprised myself by delivering quite a funny speech that got a good reaction from the audience. My comic timing still needs a lot of work, but you can’t have everything.
The point is, not only did I draw a lot of confidence from taking on a seemingly daunting challenge but since I had so many other things to worry about compared to a normal speech (what if no-one laughed!?), I found it much easier when I went back to do a more run-of-the mill speech. I could almost hear my public speaking muscles stretching.
The take home
So if you are nervous about public speaking then I’d suggest setting yourself a similar challenge. Jump into public speaking wherever you can, and get as much as you can out of each experience. Toastmasters is one place you can get speaking experience, Meetup.com is a less formal way and there may be various opportunities across the campus if you are based in a university.
Whatever you do, just get out there and speak. It might be uncomfortable at first, but not nearly as uncomfortable as spending the rest of your life dreading every time a speaking event looms for you.
What do you plan to do to banish your public speaking nerves, or if you have already done so — how did you do it? Leave a comment!