Confused about public speaking nerves? (you’re not alone)

Confusion creates fertile ground for anxiety, so it’s important to understand how public speaking nerves work.

You might recognise parts of this conversation with a successful and confident senior manager. It’s similar to 100 or so conversations I’ve had about public speaking anxiety. Note the words in bold…

CAM: What do you do?

SM: I manage Agency Sales at Google. What do you do?

CAM: Communication Consultant – we offer a simpler method for public speaking, presentation skills and media conversations.

SM: I did some speaking training years ago – we were taught by actors.

CAM: Interesting. What are the key things you remember?

SM: They focused on impromptu performances. We went out into the city streets and stood on a milk crate and had to try to engage passers-by with our presentations. It was pretty hard to believe in the training when the situation was so disconnected from what we do on a day-to-day basis.

CAM: Yes! It still amazes me that so much training in business presentation skills is taught by actors who’ve never been in business. It can create an environment where people think making a presentation is alien to their natural style – which ends up feeding their anxiety.

SM: Yeah, nerves are funny. I’m a confident person and I’m the boss, but when speaking to some groups I still get nervous. It’s strange though, half the time I’m ok and it goes really well, but half the time it doesn’t and nothing seems to go well, which leads to a downward spiral.

CAM: That was the same for me many years ago. In fact, a big part of our consulting business now is senior managers who say ‘I need you to train my team but (whispering…) perhaps you and I can do one-on-one coaching as well’. They still get nervous but are uncomfortable admitting it.

SM: (laughs)

CAM: But the underlying reason is very interesting – and very common. Even at CEO and partner level, some people live with a mental catch-22. It goes something like this; ‘I’m a confident person, so that’s not the problem and I am more knowledgeable that most of my audiences, so that’s not the problem… but for some strange reason I feel nervous when I speak in public. But I know I shouldn’t feel nervous because I’m a confident and knowledgable person. It makes no sense!’

SM: So what is the reason? Is it their personal confidence or is it that they haven’t got enough experience?

CAM: Neither. Their nerves are a normal reaction to the underlying uncertainty of the speaking situation. Particularly if it’s a new subject, a senior audience or big event. We want the presentation to go well but the outcome is uncertain (until it’s over).

The mind has trouble dealing with uncertain events and some anxiety is the normal reaction to the uncertainty. When people wonder why they are nervous when ‘it makes no sense’, they feed the uncertainty/anxiety animal even more.

Most of my high-level coaching sessions start with the fact that public speaking nerves are normal – and feeling this anxiety is not connected with competence in other areas. When contradiction and confusion are removed it’s easy to understand and then manage the nerves.

SM: But isn’t this skill simply innate. Either you have ‘it’ or you don’t?

CAM: No. That’s an idea that generates a ‘What if I haven’t got it?!’ question that creates uncertain thoughts that can lead to anxiety.

It’s simply about directing your attention to specific things when speaking. Anyone can do that when they are shown how. Sure, some people will enjoy public speaking more and do it better than others, but virtually everyone can achieve the basic public speaking goals of managing their public speaking nerves and engaging an audience.

Look at Richard Branson. He has admitted that he gets very nervous. He um’s and ahs and looks uncomfortable a lot of the time. But he is able to deliver memorable messages and persuasive ideas which make him one of the most successful business speakers in the world.

SM: Interesting… Maybe I’ll give you a call.

SM did call and attended the Vivid Presentation Skills course to plug the gaps of uncertainty in his mind. Afterwards, he wrote us a note saying, ‘Excellent. Good structure. Great course. A must do.’

You don’t have to let a niggling uncertainties slow your life down. We offer the Vivid Method for Public Speaking


If you’d like to control nerves and develop your speaking skills, consider:

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