Mark Twain identified two types of public speakers: those who are nervous, and those who are liars. Fear of public speaking afflicts us all.
This is not altogether bad. The nerves we bring to our speeches, presentations, and lectures can help focus our attention and can also give an air of gravity to our message.
Yet, as most of us have experienced, unmanaged fear can be an obstacle to effective communication and, in the case of the classroom, student learning.
Luckily, we need not simply accept and live with uncontrolled fear of public speaking. Here are five strategies for calming your nerves.
First, try cognitive techniques. If you’ve ever consulted a cognitive-behavioral therapist about your anxieties, you were probably advised to reinterpret your negative thoughts—to reframe the limiting beliefs you hold about your future. This technique can be highly effective for public speaking. Are you apprehensive about making mistakes? Reframe the thought by telling yourself that your audience will forget whatever mistakes you make, but will remember your best moments. To give another example, we sometimes multiply our nerves by overthinking them (“Why am I so nervous? I’m nervous about being nervous!”). Instead, we might reframe the thought by reminding ourselves that we need nerves to focus our attention.
Second, you might develop a pneumonic strategy. While we do not recommend rote memorization, a certain kind of selective memorization can calm your nerves by giving you a sense of control over your performance. Try memorizing the very first and the very last words of your talk. Starting of strong can build confidence for your entire presentation, and knowing exactly how you will end can provide a calming sense of direction as you move along. In between, try to hold in your memory key pivot points, or pegs, in your presentation. Perhaps these are moments when you transition from one section to the next, or when you emphasize a main point. Memorizing these strategic pegs will help you remain calm and focused throughout your talk.
Cognitive reframing and strategic memorization take practice. Fortunately, there are more readily available techniques you might employ right away. Mindfulness experts tell us that a number of simple physical techniques can help manage our nerves. Try inhaling and exhaling deeply and slowly through your nose while counting in your head “1,2,3” as you inhale and “1,2,3” as you exhale. Another helpful technique to use just before your talk is to tighten up part of your body that no one else can see (perhaps a foot or a hand under the table) and then slowly release the tension.
If the room or venue where you’ll be speaking is available before your talk, you might try a visual technique. Stand or sit in the exact spot where you will deliver. Look at the empty chairs and spaces in the room and imagine your audience. Keep this image in your mind later as you prepare. Visualization will help you avoid feeling overwhelmed by your audience when it comes time to speak.
Finally, consider an emotional strategy. Sometimes the best strategy for managing your fear of public speaking will be to counteract fearful emotions with positive ones. In the moments leading up to your talk, remind yourself of your genuine excitement about the opportunity to speak. What are the nuggets of knowledge that you are thrilled to leave with your audience? How are you determined to make your listeners a little bit different—even better—for having heard your talk?