Butterflies in the belly. Stage fright. Nervousness. Anticipatory anxiety.
Call it what you will—the symptoms of pre-speech jitters affect most of us. And that's actually a good thing, because a bout of nerves energizes us and gets us ready for the big game. (To engage and influence your audiences and speak at your best, download my cheat sheet, "5 Ways to Captivate an Audience.")
There's also the good news that stage fright usually goes away a few minutes into a presentation. Still, there's that tricky time before you start.
If you'd like to turn down the volume on those jitters and get more in control, here are some strategies you can try just before you speak. They come from Tom Antion's book Wake 'Em Up,* and I've added a few comments and links to some of my articles here and there. You shouldn't try all of these 27 approaches at once. Find the "fix," or two or three, that work for you, then use them to reduce your stage fright just before the curtain rises.
- Be in the room at least an hour early if possible to check everything. Chat with people.
- Notice and think about things around you.
- Think about current events you can mention in your talk (especially in the opening).
- Get into conversation with people near you. Be very intent on what they are saying. To be sharp when you're "on," use these 10 ways to stay fully focused when speaking.
- Yawn to relax your throat. To stay in shape vocally, here are 15 easy ways to keep your voice healthy.
- Look at all these interesting people!
- Draw sketches of a new car you would like to have.
- Look at your notes.
- Put pictures of your kids/grandkids, dog, etc., in your notes.
- Build a cushion of time into the day--but not time to worry.
- If your legs are trembling, lean on a table, sit down, or shift your legs.
- Take a quick walk.
- Drink small sips of lukewarm water.
- Double check your A/V equipment.
- Avoid alcohol or caffeinated drinks.
- Concentrate on your ideas. Need a way to start strong? Here are 12 foolproof ways to open a speech.
- Pay attention to your audience.
- Listen to music, or read a poem.
- Do isometrics that tighten and release muscles.
- Shake hands and smile with attendees before the program.
- Say something to someone to make sure your voice is ready to go.
- Go somewhere private and warm up your voice, muscles, etc.
- Practice your eye contact as you chat with people.
- Go to a mirror and check out how you look.
- Breathe deeply, evenly, and slowly for several minutes. Do you know how to "belly breathe" to calm your nerves?
- Don't eat if you don't want to, and never take tranquilizers or other such drugs. You may think you will do better, but you will probably do worse and not know it. (I learned this lesson when I was performing as a singer/guitarist at a restaurant in London. One night I drank a little too much wine while on a break with friends, and when it was time to perform again, was convinced I was doing GREAT! My friends, however, told me otherwise.)
Remember that nervousness is normal, and is actually an indication that you care about what your audience sees and hears. In your desire to do well by them, you feel some anxiety and acute anticipation. That's merely a sign that you're aiming to be the best type of presenter there is: someone who's concerned with the needs of the audience above all else. Get yourself calmed and centered with any of the strategies above, and you'll be ready to perform at your best.
* Tom Antion, Wake 'Em Up (Landover Hills: Anchor Publishing, 1999), 82-84.