The nature of nerves
Several years ago, a survey was conducted to identify the top 10 public fears. Public speaking came up as number 1! Above spiders and other creepy crawlies, deep water, heights, illness, financial worries, open spaces, flying – death came in about number 9 on the list. The key point here is that apparently the scariest thing we can do in our lives is stand in front of people and speak.
Why the fear factor?
Public speaking is often considered an umbrella fear meaning many different fears bundled together under one heading. We tend to focus on the many things that could go wrong when presenting.
For example my mouth will dry up, my mind will go blank, I’ll fall over, I’ll burst into tears, they’ll laugh at me, I’ll swear and embarrass myself and my boss, who’s in the audience.
A wise man once said: ‘the human brain is a wonderful thing. It starts working the moment you are born, and doesn’t stop until you stand up to speak in public’.
Basically we imagine the worst case scenario and carry that with us into the presentation.
The physical effects
As soon as you perceive a threat (you have to deliver a presentation to 20 people) and become nervous, your primitive survival instinct, fight or flight, ignites. Your brain releases 2 stimulants into your bloodstream, adrenaline and cortisol, which bring about immediate physical changes.
- Our heart rate increases; the heart is now working overtime, pumping blood and oxygen to the parts of us which need it most to keep us alive. Ultimately it just wants us to be physically strong enough to deal with the threat – to either fight back, or to run away (take flight).
- Your body temperature rises. Who doesn’t get sweaty when they are nervous?
- A rush of blood to the head? This explains why a lot of people’s faces turn red when they’re either angry or embarrassed.
- Butterflies in your stomach? The blood normally reserved for this area has been sent to other parts of your body, so you feel nauseous.
The main message here is that the fight or flight instinct gives us a colossal amount of nervous energy. Let’s use it!
With practice, this energy becomes your ally when presenting, and can have a significant impact on performance. If you turn it in on yourself, it becomes anxiety which eats away at you. However, if you send it outwards towards the audience, it manifests itself as energy, enthusiasm and vitality. This works incredibly well.
So what’s the big secret?
How do we become more confident presenters? Is it acupuncture, aromatherapy, breathing exercises, hypnotherapy? Perhaps, but for me, the answer is much simpler: practice. Practice, practice, practice and then practice some more. The more you repeat any skill or behaviour, the more it becomes embedded. Whenever opportunities to present arise, grab them with both hands. Not an easy answer but the most effective one!
What have we learnt? If we get nervous before a presentation, that’s good! It means we’re human and not perfect presenting robots. With practice, we can harness the nervous energy and use it to be an enthusiastic and engaging presenter.
Mark Twain once said this: “There are 2 kinds of public speaker. Those that are nervous, and those that are liars.”