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February 2023
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Make Those Nerves Work for You

By Des Moloney


The top reason people give for joining Toastmasters is to build confidence for public speaking. Many people assume that the best strategy to quell the fear is to try to stay calm. In theory that’s good advice but trying to calm yourself down when you’re nervous adds to the anxiety, making matters worse.

Research from Harvard University suggests that anxiety and excitement are closely related. Most of our physiological, or involuntary, responses to anxiety are the same as when we are excited. The study suggests a simple, yet counterintuitive approach to calming our nerves before giving a speech: Don’t. That’s not a misprint, don’t try to calm yourself down.

Although it isn’t easy, we can train our brains to become excited about public speaking. I decided to take the advice of the Harvard study, and I’m here to tell you that it does work. Here’s the formula I found that works for me:

  • Practice. Just as you would practice a speech, practice getting excited for a speech. I’ve found that waiting until the night of the speech does not work. My mind is already racing, and it is difficult to concentrate.
  • Keep it simple. Stick to one “exciting topic.” For example, think about that upcoming vacation but don’t try to add to it by thinking about the equally exciting upcoming holiday with family and friends.
  • Give yourself time. Start to get excited a couple of hours before your speech. I have found that waiting until the last minute isn’t as effective. That inner voice is strong and needs time to warm up.
  • Don’t be discouraged. It may not work the first time. For me, it didn’t work until the third time I tried.

The brain is powerful, especially the inner voice that tells us we are nervous. The good news is that same inner voice is something that we can control. With practice you can make those nerves work for you and make your next speech the best one yet.

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