My knees were shaking under the table, my mouth was dry and I was struggling to breathe. All I could think was, “you have to nail this!”. ‘This’ was a one-minute elevator pitch at a networking event, no biggie. And yet, I felt nervous. Really nervous.
After teaching and coaching personal impact and presentation skills for a long time, it served as a great reminder about how nerves can impact on your mind-set and body and how a few simple tools can reset those, so you can do the job of communicating your brilliant ideas, brilliantly.
So, imagine this is you. You have been asked to give a presentation at a meeting, be on a panel at an event, record a podcast or give a vote of thanks to a retiring colleague; just the thought of it is enough to leave you feeling like a rabbit in the headlights, with sweaty palms and a mouth and tongue that are no longer under your conscious control.
This may sound very familiar or you may recognise elements of this description. We often see these feelings as barometers of competence and assume that, “I’m nervous because I am no good at presenting or speaking up” and that “confident speakers just don’t get nervous, that is why they are so good”. Sorry, but I am about to burst a few bubbles.
Firstly, nervousness or the lack of it, is not an indicator of how good a speaker is; just think how many super-confident but terrible speakers have you have had to listen to. More than a few, right? So, conversely your nerves are not a sign that you are a poor speaker.
Secondly, and more importantly, good speakers, even brilliant speakers get nervous; Oprah Winfrey for instance. When she gave her masterclass of an acceptance speech, at the Golden Globes 2018, she was absolutely in control of herself and the audience. But, watch it carefully and listen and you will hear just how dry her mouth is, a sure sign of nerves. What she doesn't do is let it affect her desire to say what needs to be said. She knows how to work with her nerves.
Thirdly, nerves are sign that you are a human being, not a robot! The oldest part of our brain, the mammalian brain, is designed to help us survive. To this part of the brain, that’s equivalent to “stay with the pack”. Standing up to give a presentation is tantamount to separating yourself from the pack. Our mammalian brain immediately assumes that we are about to become lunch for a sabre tooth tiger and releases hormones into our system that stimulate the ‘flight, fight, freeze’ reaction.
Those hormones cause you to stop moving, so you can listen for danger and decide; do I run or fight? They cause your heart rate to increase pumping blood to muscles so that you can run faster. Your face alternates between pale and flushed as blood flows into the muscles and away from the face - or towards the brain - leaving your cheeks hot and pink. As your muscles are primed and ready to go but not moving they can begin to shake; they literally don’t know whether to contract or release. In other words, any anxiety that you might feel and the resultant physical manifestations are a sign that you are a completely normal, functioning human being.
So, what does Oprah do with her nerves? As I don’t know her personally, I am going to make an educated guess about three things she is very likely to do. If you adopt them, it can make a difference to how you feel and how you will be perceived by your audience.
Tip 1: It’s all about the Feet
Talking about feet may not seem inspirational at first, but bear with me! This is going to feel very counterintuitive and you may want to point out that we don’t speak using our feet. Except we do. Every part of our skeleton is connected and if our feet are not fully connected to the ground, it impacts on our ability to stand, breathe and speak.
Don’t believe me? Try it. Rock back on your heels and say out loud, “I’m delighted to be here!” – does it sound truthful? Rock forward on to the balls of your feet and say out loud, “I’m feeling really sad” – does that sound truthful?
Probably not. Now, standing with your feet flat on the floor, just imagine that you can breathe through your feet into the floor. Wiggle and scrunch your toes and place them back on the ground, as spread out as possible. Now say, ‘Good Morning, my name is (say your name)’. How does your voice sound now? Better?
How our feet are connected to the ground impacts on the gravitas of our voice. Disconnected feet often lead to a disconnected body. So, next time you need to speak, start by thinking about your feet!
Tip 2. Out not in
Breathe. Again, you might be thinking, “well, of course I am breathing!”. Except, remember that automatic mammalian response, the chances are high that you are either taking small breaths or not breathing at all, so you can listen out for danger. This is an easy one to overcome: just remember, “If in doubt, breath out”.
When people are anxious or stressed they are often given well-meaning advice from others about taking a deep breath. This the worst thing they can do. They are already tense and have lungs full of held breath. Trying to take a deep breath will create more tensions across the top of their chest and make them feel more anxious. Breathing out begins to release body tension which immediately releases mind tension. Then you can take a calmer, deeper breath. It’s that simple. “If in doubt, breath out”.
Tip 3. Be more Dr Who
Be a travelling Time Lord!? No, not quite. I mean be more Jodie Whittaker.
As I was listening to her being brilliantly interviewed by David Tennant on his podcast recently, I realised she is the epitome of a Happy-High-Status speaker. Happy-High-Status is a state of mind and one of the key elements to successful public speaking. It’s an ability to radiate enthusiasm and energy that encourages the audience to trust you, because you are being you. It’s an ability to accept being seen by the audience for who you are and seeing them for who they are; a physical translation of “I’m ok, you’re ok”. There is no judgement on either side.
Happy-High-Status can be learned and practiced. Spend some time thinking about when you felt proud and confident, and ready to do and be more. How did you stand, hold yourself, speak? Try to recreate that physicality by imagining yourself in that mindset and body. When that image is really clear in front of you, step forward into that version of yourself. Breathe yourself in and allow that Happy-High-Status version of yourself speak.
So, managing nerves and anxiety is a mind and body process. Get your feet connected to the ground, breath out and allow your body and mind to access the Happy-High-Status version of yourself. You will feel calmer and more prepared and your audience will respond more positively towards your ideas. And next time you need to speak, you might just find the nerves are a little less intense.
If not, you know just what to do!
Breathe. Speak. Inspire.