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Dealing with public speaking nerves

Speaking_fear.001 As you become accustomed to public speaking and presenting you will grow more comfortable and able to be more natural and let "the real you" come out. But if you are still quite nervous about the idea of presenting in front of others, don't worry, this is natural. In fact, virtually every confident and engaging presenter you see today was at some point earlier in their careers much less sure of themselves in front of a live audience.

Ipad2_stevejobs I have written a lot about Steve Jobs over the years. He's as a business leader who does a great job of presenting in a natural, comfortable, conversational style. His presentations feature large-screen visuals that  are insync with his narration in a harmonious way that engages his audience. Earlier this week Steve Jobs, who is on medical leave from Apple, gave another good presentation introducing the iPad2 (watch it). Yet, Jobs was not always as comfortable speaking before an audience. This clip below was reported by numerous news organizations last month. The clip features Steve Jobs getting ready for a live TV appearance when he was in his early 20s.

In the clip above Jobs appears to be at least a little nervous, though I think he's more excited and anxious to get started than anything else. Still, this clip is a kind of confirmation that everyone can get better and become more relaxed and comfortable with time. But it is also a reminder that it is perfectly OK and absolutely natural for you to feel nervous in front of an audience.

Can you ever be 100% comfortable?
In a great little documentary called Comedian (a must for any public speaker) Jerry Seinfeld had this to say about getting more comfortable on stage: "You’re never really comfortable. Even though you may think you are... you really aren’t.” But in time, Seinfeld says, "you learn how to open, how to sustain, how to pace...” and you will get more comfortable.

 Jerry  Seinfeld_2
The slides above are from a series of slides available on

In the Naked book I do touch on the issue of nerves. In this chapter a nice two-page callout section was written by my buddy in Australia Les Posen. Les is a Clinical Psychologist practising in Melbourne who uses his knowledge of the cognitive sciences to help presenters deliver their best possible presentations. Below is an excerpt from his contribution to the Naked book which appears on pages 92-93.

Les_posen Five tips for dealing with presentation nerves
by Les Posen

"Starting about 60,000 years ago, our brains developed a marvelous system of providing us with remarkable defenses against environmental threats. Sometimes, those defenses are set-and-forget types, such as automatically blinking when a bug hits your windscreen, even though you “know” you’re protected. Other times, an evolutionary newer part of our brain where we make decisions and plans—the part that makes us most human—warns us of an upcoming threat. In the case of presenting, it might be fears of not connecting, or of our ideas not being accepted, or of going blank in front of 500 pairs of eyes. In historical terms, we still possess the fear of what it means to be stared at by so many people: Either we are the monarch, or more likely, we are the next sacrifice! Through evidence-based research and practice, clinical and performance psychologists have developed ways to help suppress these learned and ingrained fears, especially when we know we can perform well if only we give ourselves the chance. There are five interventions I teach and want to share with you:

1. Chunking and exposure.
Identify and break down your presenting challenges into small manageable chunks, and deliberately expose yourself to each of them step by step.
2. Rehearsal.
Beyond just practicing your slide timings, actually visualize and hear yourself say the words with your slides. You see yourself in front of the crowd and rehearse your presentation to a variety of audience reactions, both positive and negative.
3. Self-talk.
Anxiety grabs onto self-critical talk such as “I’ll do a terrible job. What happens if the slide show fails. What happens if they don’t laugh at my jokes.” Your task is not to feed your anxiety with this type of talk, but to change it into “I can do this. I will follow my rehearsed plans. This is manageable.”
4. Arousal control via diaphragmatic breathing.
Calm your brain’s fear center with slow, deliberate breaths with slightly longer exhales. Slower rhythm (rather than deep breathing) is helpful for fear management.
5. Deliberate practice.
Practice your beginning, identify challenging concepts, and practice, practice, practice—out loud. These techniques work, and I use them myself as well as with clients. They are powerful and will prove useful in scenarios other than presenting."

The tips from Les Posen above are not the last word on dealing with presentation anxiety, but these bits of advice can certainly help. One of the biggest tips to remember as well is to be well prepared. A big source of difficulty comes when speakers simply have not prepared. The only thing scarier than presenting in front of a crowd is doing so while being ill-prepared and unsure of yourself and your content.

Watch Steve Job's latest presentation on iPad 2
Les Posen's blog



My fear of public speaking dissolved greatly after taking several Spanish classes. As part of the classes, we had to give presentations in Spanish. Now, anything in English is a piece of cake!

refinance mortgage

I was quite and intravert person until one day I had to be a regular public speaker due to my job requirement. I was extremely scared that I would screw it up. But now I can not see what the fuss about and sometimes can not seem to stop talking. So jump right in it and do not hold back. Great advises by the way. I did not mean to steal your post.

John Dawson

Les is exactly right about fears of not connecting, going blank in front of 500 pairs of eyes. But you are missing a key ingredient to tackling public speaking nerves.
And strangely its quite simple.

Speakers are normally still using standard conversational skills - they are looking for approval from people's faces (like a normal conversation - smiles,nods etc). But the audience does not listen in that way. They are just part of a crowd. Audiences very often have blank faces. Speakers are not getting the normal signs of approval - so they think they are boring, no good, failing in some way. But its just a clash of modes - speaker in conversational mode and audience in group mode. You need to work on developing new skills to not over-read faces in the audience. You need to work from the point that Blank faces are normal. Full stop. And you can learn these skills very easily. Once people understand the different skills you need a lot of the fear disappears. We have normalized blank faces and are not looking for approval all the time. As a speaker you end up doing a lot less work and a lot less overthinking
I run 40 courses a year for people who are fearful of public speaking. I'm happy to explore this more if you want.
I love your work and your naked presenter is a great book
Of course my thoughts are with the people of Japan- thanks for the information about donating.

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