Harness nerves and speak with confidence


Quora didn’t like this answer about speaking with confidence, for some reason, so I’ll share it with the world this way. I think it’s helpful, and I’d like to put it where it can do some good.

The original question was “Tomorrow I have a presentation and I don’t know how to start it. I feel afraid in front of people. What can I do?”

Here is my answer (and I can’t see a thing wrong with it, but it got “moderated”). It has only been edited to use more active voice. (I would have edited it more there, but I didn’t get the chance.)

The ‘unacceptable’ response

[Quora called this s p a m. I’m not seeing it.]

Feeling what you label as fear (really, it’s just energy) simply means you care about what you’re doing. That’s good news! If you didn’t feel that, there would be something wrong with you. But we don’t want to get rid of it; we want to bring it down to a manageable level and harness it.

You have two issues: how to start, and how to deal with the energy. A certain mindset will help both.

  1. Don’t think of it as a presentation. Think of it as a planned conversation. It will greatly affect how you approach the conversation—how you prepare for it, how you sound, how comfortable you feel. We all have those conversations we think about ahead of time—conversation instead of performance because we get really familiar with the ideas we want to convey, but we don’t write it out word for word, we don’t memorize it, and we listen to and pay attention to the other party so that we constantly adapt.
  2. The energy comes from a chemical in your blood. It’s more complicated than just adrenaline and cortisol, but they will stand for the whole array. Those chemicals, kicked in by your feeling of being exposed, are liquid energy, like ether for a gasoline engine. Instead of trying to get rid of it, we want to put it into our delivery. Most people try to clamp down on it, thinking they sound too animated, too loud, too over the top. You then wind up sounding flat, mechanical, and uninterested (and thus uninteresting). Get out of your own way and let it flow.

Getting confidence right up front

The suggestion to start with a joke may help, but it can fall flat in two ways: 1) if the audience doesn’t find it funny, it puts up a barrier between you and the audience, and it increases your anxiety; 2) if you tell a joke that unrelated to your topic, it confuses the audience. You will break the ice more safely and effectively by telling a funny story. You almost certainly need to build your speech around stories anyway, since humans think in story terms.

A funny story that relates to or illustrates something about your topic is safer and more effective because it will connect your audience to your topic even if they happen to not find the story funny. In fact, if they don’t laugh, they will never know you expected them to laugh (unless you tell them), so you lose nothing, but you still have the gain that naturally comes from a story.

You might find this article helpful in dealing with harnessing the nervousness.

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