Big Day Ahead It’s the night before an important event: a big exam, a major presentation, your wedding. How do you calm your nerves in preparation for the big day?
I’m still terrified of speaking in public…but I can do it. The experience told in this story, though it was 12 years ago, was a turning point for me.
“I really hope you can do this, Professor. That was a great lecture. I never thought of those things before.”
“OK. I’ll do it.” I’d just been asked to give a talk on overcoming the fear of speaking in public. To whom would I give this talk? To the whole university — that is, anyone who wanted to come. I’d be speaking in a VERY large room in what was once Aztec Center (RIP). I’d been in this room many times for a variety of events, but now I would be the featured speaker. I was scared to death. No one is more afraid of speaking in public than I am.
What is my stragedy for overcoming this fear? Simple (but not easy). A speaker needs to be more involved with the importance of his/her message than with his/her own nerves. I know it’s true. I’ve seen it work in my own life. It’s how I was able to face a classroom filled with people for years and years, but…
I started by assessing my own concrete problems.
- I would sweat. I knew it. I will have armpit moisture down to my waist. It’s a major symptom of nerves for me. I always wear something that will hide that. One problem out of the way.
- My mouth would be dry and my hands would be wet. I bring my own bottle of water.
- If I’m not prepared, I will freak out. In spite of being “creative,” I have learned that I am often more prepared than my less creative and more linear colleagues. I know something will go wrong at the last minute. I should not be me — but it could be.
- I seldom rehearse. Why? I honestly don’t know. I think it has to do with the fact that rehearsing adds to my nervousness and the most effective method for me to absorb and internalize my speeches is by reading and revising them. This can backfire as timing is important, but usually it doesn’t. Years of practice have made me a pretty good judge of how long it will take to deliver a speech.
- Slide shows are very helpful — but not the kind that are just note cards projected on a screen. Why even open your mouth if that’s what’s “supporting” and illustrating your talk?
With this in mind, I dressed in a black skirt, black tights, heels, white shirt and blue jacket. I arrived early with my own projector so I did not need to worry about what would happen with my slide show. I felt confident in my slide show because the student who’d gotten me into this room had liked it. I did not have hand outs because I knew that the distributing of handouts would just provide me an opportunity to trip and fall. I did tell my audience that if they wanted a copy of the side show to email me and I’d send it to them.
I loaded my slide show, ran through it once to be sure it was all working, returned to the first slide and paused it in preparation. I began to sweat, as expected. The students started coming in. I said “Hi!” to everyone, smiled as if their being there was the biggest thrill in my life, and told them that if they they were attending the talk for extra credit in a class and needed my signature on a paper from their teachers, to come up afterwards.
The room filled beyond it’s seating capacity, and kids were sitting on the floor. I was humbled by this, though I knew most of them were there because they’d been ordered to attend by their Comm. teachers. I hoped my talk would help them. The miracle of the message outweighing my nerves in importance took over and I began to calm down.
Three minutes after the talk was supposed to begin, I started speaking. I knew I only had to do this for 15 to 20 minutes, even though I had an hour. The talk is simple and I model all these points.
- Look at your audience because your audience LOVES you. Why? Because no one in the audience wants to be up there speaking. (Ice-breaking laughter ensues.)
- By looking at the audience — or appearing to — you create a happy bond that says, “We’re all just people.”
- Smile because smiles relax everyone.
- Thank people for being there; by doing that, you open mouth without screwing up — you’ll relax a little.
- Take a deep breath and remember that the people in the audience are not there to judge you as a person, but to learn what you have to say. (“Right guys?”)
From there I gave mechanical advice based on learning what your audience NEEDS to know and going to that place directly. (“You want my signature right?” laughter. “Some of you are afraid to speak in public — how many? Hands high. I want to see terrified people. Claim your terror!”) Being aware of the audience and its background is the first step in knowing what the speech must say. And on and on and closing.
When I was finished (and soaking wet under the arms), kids filed up with papers for me to sign for their Comm. classes. After everyone had gone, a beautiful young woman, her cheeks shaking in nervousness, came up to ask me a question. “Sit down,” I told her. She did. “What’s up?” I asked.
“I’m so afraid to speak in public. I’m a graduate student now and I know I will have to do this. Your talk helped me so much, but how can I learn not to be afraid?”
I took off my jacket. “You can’t,” I said. I lifted my arm. “This is what was going on with me the whole time I was talking to you all. I’m terrified of this, but I learned that while it’s embarrassing, it’s not nearly as embarrassing as NOT doing it.”
“But you seem so calm!” she said.
“I’m not. Here’s my story. When I was 12 I was asked to give the invocation at my church. My mom was so proud she bought me a new dress — hideous, by the way — and I wrote my little prayer and put it on an index card. When the day came, I walked down to the front of the church. I turned, I saw everyone sitting in the pews and I fainted. I fell on the floor in front of everyone, dress and all. Can you imagine?”
“Oh my God!” said the young woman, her eyes wide but also she was trying not to laugh.
“Yes. That was when I learned how I felt about speaking in public. I thought about it a lot for several years and decided that there was no way I could live the life I wanted or be the person I wanted if I were going to faint every time I had to speak in public. It was a lot worse to lie on the floor with my dress up in front of 350 Baptists than it was to just go in, speak my speech and get out. I took speech classes in high school. I did drama in high school and college and competitive speaking in high school. But I’ll tell you that even today I was terrified and I didn’t sleep last night and you can see my armpits. The point is, the nerves don’t really matter. What you have to say is what matters.”
“You’re right, but…”
“Did you know I was up here sweating like that?”
“No. I had no idea. That’s it, isn’t it? No one has to know.”
“No one will know. They will just hear your message.”