Do you need to calm your nerves during the first moments of public speaking? Here's how to reduce anxiety when you begin your presentation.
If there's one problem we all share as public speakers, it's being just a little nervous at the start of a presentation. For some people, of course, fear of public speaking is more serious than that. But even for the confident among us, the opening moments of a speech are a challenge.
We may experience the Imposter Syndrome—which tells us, "It's only a matter of time before everyone realizes you don't know what you're talking about." Or it may be the scary thought that you're going to forget what you're here to discuss. Or it might just be the (false) conviction that that's a serious collection of unfriendly faces out there.
Interestingly, these opening jitters are usually a much less serious condition than deep-seated speech anxiety. The "awful first two minutes" does in fact disappear; and before we know it we're discussing our slides or first important point. True fear of speaking, on the other hand, may already have been making you miserable over this speech for months, if you didn't give way to speech phobia outright and found a way to avoid the speaking situation altogether.
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So what can you tell yourself to gain the boost in confidence to slay this particular dragon?
You Already Know How to Be a Dynamic Speaker!
Recently, I discussed this beginning-a-speech-dread with a client. She is highly accomplished in her field and works at one of the leading organizations in her industry. (I can almost hear the follow-up thought that she probably has as she looks out at an audience: "So what?")
Actually, the "so what" can and should be the basis of her confidence—and that of others just like her. (Does that include you?) It all has to do with having faith in yourself. And I don't mean the religious kind.
The reason we get wrapped in anxiety when we're about to start our speech has to do with an over-focus on our performance. And that is usually closely intertwined with the information we'll be delivering. We see our challenge as being some kind of superhero at a professional presentation. Precisely because of our accomplishments, we believe everyone will think less of us if we don't perform at the level that's appropriate for our position.
But audiences really aren't scoping out your performance—in fact, they usually couldn't care less. They are there to get something they don't yet have, whether that's information or insight or inspiration. And only you can give that to them. A collection of slides can't do that, however solid the data on them is. Nor can a slick speaker who's light on actual knowledge. Those aren't the ways to captivate an audience.
As I tell clients, you could leave your laptop in the cab on the way in from the airport, and still speak incisively for an hour on your topic. Who you are is the reason you've been tasked with giving this speech. So in the end, it doesn't matter if you don't follow the script perfectly in the first couple of minutes. You'll absolutely still be delivering the value expected of you. Of course you will! That's what I mean by having faith in yourself.
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When Memorization Can Help You in Public Speaking
Here's another, more practical way of ensuring that you hit the ground running: memorize the first minute of your talk. (And actually, do the same with your conclusion.)
In spite of the negative press memorizing for public speaking has received, there are some solid reasons why committing your introduction to memory can help you. Obviously, doing so has the advantage of keeping you from stumbling through your opening remarks. Since you'll only be committing a minute or so to memory, there's not much risk that you'll leave out anything.
Just as important: the first 60 seconds is critical to launching your speech successfully. Judgments about you, and decisions about whether to accept what you're saying, are formed during this period. That's why it's necessary to grab or hook listeners' attention and engage them right from the start. It's all part of my 7 Key Components of Successful Presentations.
There's nothing wrong—and in terms of effectiveness, a lot right—with strutting your best stuff when everyone is paying maximum attention. Why leave it to chance? Convince the audience they're in good hands. If the thought of doing that reduces your anxiety . . . well, it should!
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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in theater-based public speaking training. His company, Boston-based The Genard Method offers in-person and online training to help executives and leadership teams achieve true influence. In 2020 for the seventh consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as one of The World's Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speaking, was recently named as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time." Contact Gary here.