Speaker Bobby Earl talks about how he, early in his career, used to awaken to find his “mind” sitting on the bedpost above him. “I’ve been waiting for you,” it announced daily, then went on to project an escalation of problems: You don’t feel like getting out of bed; maybe you are sick. You probably have some rare and incurable disease that will cost you your income. Then you will have to foreclose on the house, file for bankruptcy and likely end up living on the street.
The whole process took less than 30 seconds.
Isn’t this the same thing we do on the eve of, or day before, the Big Speech? We project disaster. We expect the roof to fall in. We anticipate some kind of rare but fatal rejection. Usually these pre-game jitters loom larger than the talk itself.
For neophytes, the apprehension can be stifling; seasoned speakers frequently experience the jitters as eagerness. Most of us realize a little of both.
Exhilaration. Thrill. Excitement. Inspiration. Stimulation. Kick. Adventure. Apprehension is not only a negative reaction to a perceived disaster, it can be positive as well.
“On the night before a new class,” says Samara Bennette, speaker and educator, “I make myself look at my presentation in a positive manner by telling myself ‘Oh cool. Tomorrow’s the first day of this class.’
“If I go to bed with that attitude,” Bennette says, “I wake up with the energy I need to perform the task. I don’t have to work to pump myself up because the excitement about the positive aspects carries over to the day of the talk.”
Having the jitters tells you that your energy is eager to be let loose. This added drive has many benefits. Anticipation can be...
- A source of motivation that leads to action.
- The force that leads you to apply yourself in a focused manner.
- An antidote to indifference.
- A message that you care about the quality of your speech.
- An indication that you will put a good amount of energy into your endeavor.
For example, the former lead singer of Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks, believed that the anxiety she experienced prior to appearing on stage helped her perform better. If she didn’t experience this excitement and nervousness, she worried about the success of the concert.
Dread. Anxiety. Nervousness. Fear. Apprehension. Tension. The jitters. But “the beast,” by any name, feels miserable.
“It’s all about the ‘what ifs,’” says Maggie Dennison, a marketing consultant and writer who’s working on her last assignment for the Distinguished Toastmaster award. She’s a member of the Unity Speakeasy Toastmasters club in Santa Barbara, California.
“I used to have a lot of fear and anxiety about speaking,” she says, “because I wasn’t living in the present. I was either obsessing about the past or worrying about the future.”
When it came to speaking assignments, the “what ifs” would hit Dennison hard. She’d have thoughts like:
- What if they think I’m stupid?
- What if I blank out?
- What if they don’t like how I dress?
- What if I trip while walking across the stage?
- What if they think I’m boring?
- What if I forget to say something?
Dennison calls it “catastrophizing:” projecting what mishap might occur in the future. “But now I attempt to concentrate on the task at hand,” she says.
A sense of foreboding can freeze us in our shoes. And it freezes some of the most experienced performers, as well. Actress Kim Basinger planned to say a few pre-rehearsed remarks when she received her Oscar, but she was so anxious she couldn’t remember what she wanted to say.
The late Johnny Carson, famous American television host of the Tonight Show, suffered anxiety prior to each of his performances on his program. Sir Lawrence Olivier, Joan Rivers, Helen Hayes, Sidney Poitier and quite a few other actors suffered apprehension prior to their performances.
The Jitters in General
Anxiety is a normal reaction to any new situation or to an event that triggers some previous trauma. You’re likely to be unaware of the underlying roots of your anxiety. What you’re more likely to experience is the feeling of panic.
Communication experts report that severe fright prior to a particular talk can be traced to one of three causes.
- A past intense and unresolved trauma. During a trauma our nervous system learns to sidestep potentially painful events in the future. Simply considering giving a talk triggers the past sensations of the original trauma, making the thought of performing terribly frightening.
- Association with fear-driven people. Fear and nervousness are extremely contagious. Spending time with fear-oriented people can exacerbate your own anxieties.
- Escalation. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Each fear-filled presentation reinforces the jitters, making it more and more difficult to give any kind of talk. In 1967, Barbra Streisand forgot lyrics while performing and for 27 years, she was so afraid of repeating the embarrassment that she refused to sing in public. Her fear snowballed.
Psychologists talk about “trait” and “state” apprehension. Trait anxiety refers to an anxiety that lies within the individual that typically makes speaking with nearly anyone nerve-wracking. This is a type of social anxiety.
State anxiety relates to the specific context, or state, of the anticipation. This includes the type and size of the audience plus the particular setting. For instance, you might be comfortable speaking to a large, anonymous group but not to an intimate round-table gathering. Or you may feel anxious giving a talk in front of your colleagues but not to a group of lay people.
The good news is that the jitters are a learned behavior. And anything learned can be unlearned.
Junking the Jitters
You know you’ve got ‘em. And now you can better understand them. You know the rich and famous have them, too. Now what should you do about them?
Sometimes we get stuck in “that’s just the way I am” thinking. But you were not born with a bent against public speaking or destined to worry yourself to death!
Change is more than possible – it’s probable. Self-transformation is hard work but it works, and it’s worth it.
Of course one of the best ways to knock out the nervousness is to practice your material. In a recent article in Prevention magazine, Dr. Peter Desberg, professor at Cal State University at Dominguez Hills, California, said “Repetition is the mother of retention.” He claimed that knowing your talk well “beats back the jitters.”
Here are some additional points to consider:
- On the evening (or day) before your engagement, engross yourself in an activity that puts you at ease, such as reading a good book, taking a nature hike, daydreaming (but not about fearful fantasies) or participating in a sport.
- Study and use some of the more popular practices of unwinding such as yoga, progressive relaxation and deep breathing.
- Meditate. There are as many ways to meditate as there are people who indulge in the practice:
- Watch the sunset.
- Ponder a positive idea such as love or friendship.
- Allow your mind to go blank.
- Count backward from 100.
Suspension of Doubt
- “Right your brain,” says Bennette, the educator. Don’t wait for an hour before your talk – start the day before. Start setting yourself up to succeed as soon as you agree to make the speech. Remember that the work you do on this carries over to the day of your talk.
- Normalize your emotions by reminding yourself that most speakers experience nervousness to some degree.
- Don’t use up your energy worrying that your nervousness will make you look like a fool. Most people won’t even notice your jitters; anxiety often comes off as enthusiasm and the excitement to express your message.
- Run continuous positive affirmations and self-talk through your mind. Say things to yourself like “I’m doing okay” or “I always do better than I think I do.”
- Experts say that our brains can’t tell the difference between what we tell ourselves happens and what actually happens. So if you picture yourself giving your speech full of energy and competence, your brain will accept that as a real experience even if it’s never occurred before. (Plus, when you give the speech it’ll seem like you’ve done it before.)
- Picture feeling confident as you walk to the stage, walking tall and holding your chin up as the crowd eagerly awaits your presentation. Expect to succeed.
- Envision being totally involved in giving help or providing joy to the audience rather than getting praise.
- Those who study the workings of the mind say that for a more vivid visualization, use as many details in what you imagine as possible:
- Your appearance, stance and posture
- A soft cloud of calming aromas surrounding you
- The sound of the applause of the audience
- The audience members nodding in agreement and smiling warmly
- The contentment you feel inside
- Your solid, clear and strong voice
Dennison readily admits to practicing the technique of visualization, which has improved her concentration and allows her to live more easily in the moment. She says the mind can only hold one thought at a time. Now, rather than anticipating disaster, Dennison switches her attention. “I concentrate on what I am doing now, then when finished, what I need to do next.”
Her advice to speakers old and new: “Picture giving a rockin’ speech to an audience that really enjoys it.”
Judi Bailey is a writer in Lakewood, Ohio, and a frequent contributor to this magazine. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org