Nerves are Normal: 7 Tips for Managing Public Speaking Anxiety

As a professor, I pride myself on practicing what I preach. When I tell my students, they need to practice before public speaking, I make sure I practice before my speeches, too. When I give them writing assignments, I (usually) complete a writing assignment of my own alongside them. I like to cultivate a “we’re in it together” spirit.

Microphone in front of an audience
Photo by Joao Cruz on Unsplash

Well, I got a dose of my own medicine recently when conducting a virtual persuasive public speaking training for an advocacy organization. The goals were to talk about public speaking best practiceshow to organize information persuasively, how to speak authentically and credibly, and how to manage nerves.

Of course, IMMEDIATELY after the host introduced me and handed over the mic, after offering compliments about a previous training, my laptop died. Red screen, lots of technical gobbledygook, complete heart attack time.

I had prepared perfectly. My slides? Checked and double checked. Browser window with audience activity? Ready. Notes, laid out in order. Water? Iced and lemony.

The laptop crash (and subsequent refusal to restart) required me to switch gears quickly. I frantically rushed to boot up my personal laptop and get signed back in. I quipped how I liked to start trainings with a little suspense, while scrambling to find my slides and work on a small screen.

Although the training went well enough, aside from a secondary internet crash, it’s painful to use myself as the what-not-to-do example. Nothing like teaching the dynamics of credibility by showing how easily it can be damaged by gaffes! Thankfully, tech troubles and canine interruptions, are also highly relatable in our ongoing virtual work lives. And I’m living proof of one of my key points about public speakingNerves are NORMAL. Mistakes are expected. Take a breath and keep talking.

At the start of trainings, I ask participants to share their level of comfort with public speaking on a scale of 1 to 10 (with one being “eek” and ten being “gimme the mic”), along with their top concern about public speaking. It never fails that folks who rate themselves as 3s and 9s both share the same concerns about managing nerves. Even folks who are adept at public speaking get the jitters.

So what can we do?

1. Acknowledge that nerves are normal. Physiologically, nerves are a reflection of our fight-or-flight system kicking in. Those sweaty palms, butterflies, and cold toes are signs of the body directing blood to our core so we can withstand whatever foe we’re facing. (Evolutionarily speaking, your body doesn’t discern between historic fight-or-flight scenarios like charging bears and modern perils like microphones and zoom cameras).

2. Reframe nerves into excitement. Ever notice that the physical feelings of fear and excitement are similar? Increased heart rate, jitters, even upset stomach. Consider reframing nervous feelings into excited feelings that will give you energy to achieve your speaking goals.

3. Rewrite negative scripts. Ask any psychologist about the power of self-talk. How we internally speak to ourselves shapes our way in the world and what we see as possible. The same goes for public speaking. As I’ve written about before, public speaking is a common top fear for people, and lots of the fear has to do with the way we talk and think about public speaking and ourselves as speakers. Compare scripts like: “I’m a terrible public speaker,” “I’m not charismatic,” and “I’m going to bomb,” with “I will get better with practice,” “I will try my best to be clear” and “Everyone has nerves; I’ll be fine.” The latter are more affirmative and supportive, which set us up with a mindset for success.

4. Use positive visualization. Along with swapping out negative scripts, positive visualization can be a powerful tool for easing nerves. Popular among elite athletes and teams, positive visualization asks people to literally envision themselves being successful in their endeavors. For speakers, I recommend visualizing yourself in the venue, seeing yourself approaching the microphone, smiling, getting laughs from the audience (depending on the goals of the speech, of course!), enjoying the applause. I will even go so far as to plan my outfit so I can better visualize myself. Positive visualization is especially helpful since most of us don’t get the benefit of a dress rehearsal.

5. Prepare and practice. You knew this one was coming right? Practice. Practice, practice, practice. Out loud. In front of others. For extra points, record yourself and go through the excruciating process of hearing your recorded voice. It’s painful but productive. As one of my training participants recently said, when you’re well prepared and practiced, you can be more confident: “You know what you know, and when you’re practiced, you know you know what you know. And it will show.”

6. Focus on the goal. It can also help to put nerves into perspective by focusing on your larger speaking goals. Are you trying to persuade lawmakers to vote for a particular cause? Asking a leadership team to fund your project? Trying to successfully complete a public speaking course? If you’ve done the preparation work, focus on the bigger picture and what you’re trying to accomplish.

7. Don’t forget to breathe. This is a before, during, and after suggestion. Breathing exercises can help calm your nerves if you’re, for instance, like me and will wake up with heart pounding in the middle of the night in the days leading up to a speech. Finding ways to calm and center yourself can be crucial in battling nerves. To that end, I’m a fan of “box breathing,” which can lower stress, center the mind, and activate the sympathetic nervous system, which is the anti-fight-or-fight system.

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