The Upside of your Public Speaking Jitters.

Contrary to popular belief, the secret to confident public speaking is not about getting rid of your nerves. The key is to reframe your anxiety as excitement.

Professional performers know that a certain amount of nervousness can be incredibly helpful. It keeps you focused and prompts you to spend your time preparing as opposed to procrastinating. As a former opera singer turned speaker, entrepreneur, and singer/songwriter, I’ve mastered physical and mental techniques that help me center myself and prepare to perform at my best in front of thousands of people. I now coach clients through a pre-speech ritual that includes breath work and visualizations to calm any nerves and get into the right mindset to deliver a presentation with confidence and authenticity.

A few years ago, my team and I led a leadership communication training for a large financial institution. One banking manager in particular was incredibly anxious about public speaking. Despite the fact that she had a warm personality that lent itself well to speaking, the idea scared her to the point of near paralysis.

But rather than reveal her nervousness, every time she had to get up and present to our group, she would exclaim, “That’s amazing!” And we’d all laugh with her because we knew it really meant, “I’m terrified!” And despite the nerves, her presentations were very engaging. That phrase became an inside reference within our small group: Every time someone was nervous before speaking, they’d shout, “that’s amazing!” when they stood up and we’d all sympathize.

In his book Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed, Daniel McGinn, an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, talks about pre-performance rituals for athletes, speakers, and surgeons who have to perform in high-stakes situations. There’s one quote in the book, by Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks, that really struck me: “The argument is that anxiety and excitement are actually very, very close, but … anxiety and calmness are too far apart.

According to Brooks, focusing on excitement rather than trying to calm down actually increases performance. So, when we tell people to calm down before a big public speech, we’re actually suggesting something that’s incredibly difficult. We’re also inadvertently recommending something that could potentially inhibit a person’s performance.

Based on this logic, I’ve revised my pre-public speaking rituals to focus on excitement:

  1. Pause & Breathe: Take a few minutes to center yourself. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  2. Remind yourself why you care. Why is this speech, this topic, or this audience important to you? Tell yourself – out loud — how excited you are about this opportunity and the positive impact it will have on others.
  3. Visualize the entire presentation, from start to finish, in your mind; imagine it going incredibly well.
  4. Listen to a song that gives you positive energy and brings a smile to your face. This could be something from your childhood or a recent song that you can’t stop listening to.

Practicing these rituals before every speech or presentation will help you take advantage of your nervous energy instead of feeling thwarted by it. Then, you can channel your nerves into a powerful, impactful performance.

I recently told that story of the woman who reframed her nerves as excitement to my class of graduate students at the Harvard Kennedy School. A few weeks later, one student stood up to give a graded speech before the entire class. As he walked to the front of the room and picked up the microphone, he exclaimed, “That’s amazing!”

And, despite his nerves, his speech was.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *