Monday, January 14, 2008

Nerves...How to Control Them When You Speak

Because I once made my living as a motivational speaker, people often assume I don’t get nervous when I speak. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, every professional speaker I’ve met—and I’ve met a lot of the big names in the field—gets a touch of anxiety before stepping up to the microphone.

And yet, they do it. They get right up there and speak.

How do professionals control their nerves? What do THEY know that you don’t?

First of all, they know they are prepared. They have practiced their presentations hundreds or thousands of time. Out loud. That’s the key; they’ve harnessed the power of muscle memory. Muscle memory is why you can hop on a bicycle after years out of the saddle and ride off into the sunset. Muscle memory kicks in whether or not your “thinking” brain is engaged.

Second, they understand that a little nervous energy is a good thing. Better to be excited and energized than lethargic and boring. As one of my friends once said, “Sure I get butterflies. The trick is to make the butterflies fly in formation.”

Third, they’re prepared for the things that inevitably go wrong. They have fun comebacks for when the microphone squeals. “Must be microphone mating season!” Or when they forget what to say next. “Okay, any mind readers out there? What was I going to say? Any ideas? Me neither!” Or even, gulp, hecklers. “Did my ex-husband send you?”

Fourth, they know that NO ONE expects the speaker to be perfect.
In fact, people don’t like perfect speakers. They like speakers who care about the audience, not speakers who are overly concerned about making a mistake. One corporate trainer I knew regularly dumped a cup of coffee on himself the first day of his week long training sessions. Why? He wanted the group to know he wasn’t perfect, and he wanted them to relax. He did that by making the first mistake.

Next month I’ll share with you tips for getting an audience to like you BEFORE you ever say a word.

Meantime, if you are coming to Love Is Murder, I’m presenting “How to be a Better Panelist…Or Presenter …. Or Guest Speaker.” The handout and tip sheet should be useful. I've collected some of the best tips on presenting and serving on a panel, and I'm delighted to share them. Stop in and say, “Hi!” I’d love to meet you.

You're also welcome to ask me any questions about giving presentations. Send them to me at I've had just about every weird situation imaginable (and some you couldn't imagine and won't believe) happen to me while speaking. If I can help you--or encourage you--let me know.

And for more tangible help, check out my textbook Using Stories and Humor: Grab Your Audience ISBN: 0-205-26893-5. It’s recommended by Toastmasters International. I guess it caused quite a stir when Benjamin Netanyahu's speechwriter told the Israeli press it was one of his favorite resources!


Keith Raffel said...

It doesn't occur to me to be nervous before speaking to a crowd. Until "well-wishers" come up and ask me, "Aren't you nervous?"

Felicia Donovan said...

Nice post, Joanna. I got over my nervousness at public speaking when I was a teacher. There, you are heckled, forget what to say and sometimes spill things on yourself - all for a good cause. It takes a lot of confidence to do that. To all the teachers who "speak in public" everyday, I tip my hat.

Candy Calvert said...

As you know (from my star-studded Amazon review), your book helped me immensely when I was recently asked to give my first keynote speech. So many great tips. I found it especially helpful to rehearse aloud (a hundred times sounds about right!)and to arrive early and "mingle" with the audience--then it feels like you're sharing stories with a roomful of friends.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Great post, Joanna, and very useful. Today an author has to be willing and able to to speak in front of groups to sell books effectively.

And Candy, you and I use the same method - arrive early and mingle! It really does help relax the speaker and the audience is more open to someone they feel they "know."

When I speak at paralegal or legal secretary conferences, I even try to attend several of the classes beforehand. Sometimes that provides a good tie-in opening remark that's unique to the group.

Julia Buckley said...

Wow, Joanna--I didn't realize your writing credits were so diverse. And be sure to say hi to ME at LIM, since we might be--are we?--the only Inkspotters there.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Thanks everyone. I had to zoom off to California right after posting--we're doing college visits. So I'm a bit slow to respond. I hope to cover many of the aspects of public speaking in my next posts. It's really a great chance for any of us to make our names and our work known to large groups. And Candy? You are St. Candy in my book. Thanks for the review. Haven't seen it yet--but I'll check on it right now.