There’s NO Way to Calm the Nerves

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.”

18 thoughts on “There’s NO Way to Calm the Nerves

  1. Good for you, overcoming stage fright of that magnitude. The only kind of performance that DOESN’T scare me to death is speaking. Any other kind of performing? Acting? Piano? Whatever? I literally can’t do it. Doesn’t matter, NO can do. So I’m amazed you’ve managed to find workarounds. Impressive achievement.

    • Oh I never made it through a piano recital…I just decided not to write about those horrendous humiliations. 🙂

  2. Love your post! I kept on reading it, all the way to the end. It’s a great story and I like what you write about ‘nobody needs to know’. I have (luckily) overcome my speaking in public nerves when I started teaching. In a class room, the focus is on the message and the importance of student’s ‘getting’ it. This made me less self-conscious and much more relaxed.

      • I think you offered some great tips for all of us, which I hope to remember when I have to do it in a very large room!

        • It’s all about getting through it without falling on the floor with your dress over your head. 🙂

  3. You were most effective, then, Martha ! – and you obviously helped many people.
    This isn’t one of my (many) problem areas, but no-one has ever asked me to talk about why it isn’t. And that’s just as well, because I couldn’t really explain it – not to take up 20 minutes, anyway !
    So it was a very good idea to have a person who suffered from that fear to talk about how to overcome it ! 🙂

    • You’re really lucky — and rare. I did research for that lecture some time back and discovered that the fear of public speaking is the number one fear, out-ranking the fear of death! It was a good intro to my talk to say there were like a million hits on google when I typed “fear of public speaking” in the search bar! I know students for sure believe they’re the only one in the world who suffers (anything).

      • I’m cognizant of my good luck in that; but in fact I’m SO cognizant of it that I wrote about it in my book … it’s all due to my father ! 🙂
        Do you think the younger we are the more likely to feel problems to be ours alone ?
        If that be true, I can say without doubt that those I have must belong to everyone else as well. [grin]

        • I think that younger people do feel that their problems are unique to them — their acne is the worst, they’re the only person who’s ever been dumped, they invented sex and no one ever did it before… I think it’s not until one is in ones late 30s that one begins to realize that they’re part of a chain of humanity and all the problems they thought they’d solve in their lifetime they won’t solve. I remember when I was about 37 and noticed how my older (40 something) colleagues went around looking tired and shell-shocked. I got to be 43 and I was doing the same thing, “Holy shit! I’m in my forties and I haven’t saved the world or even gotten a real job!!!! It’s not all going to come true!”

  4. Terrific post Martha! I like the way you shared with the student at the end, showing her your vulnerability to give her more confidence. 🙂

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