If you’re human, you likely get nervous when you are asked to take the stage or speak from a place of authority in front of others. Even something as innocuous as introducing ourselves around a table can make the butterflies take flight. The physical symptoms of nervousness take a lot of shapes but can include a racing heartbeat, clammy palms, sweaty armpits or face, dry mouth, forgetting or fumbling our words, losing our place, nausea, and shaking hands, knees, or voice.
I’ve had several speaking coaches advise techniques to abate these symptoms such as deep breathing or doing some jumping jacks outside my room before I speak. While these suggestions have helped a little or for a short period of time, they never really did the trick long term. But I believe I’ve finally cracked the code.
The problem with the aforementioned ideas is that they only address the symptoms of nervousness, not the cause. The cause is simple: Adrenaline. We release adrenaline in a primal fight or flight reaction to a perceived threat and our audience feels like just that… a threat. Because we are worried about how we will be received, whether our listeners will like us, accept us, agree with us, or laugh at our jokes… we inadvertently see them as a body of judgement and our mind automatically feels unsafe. The most primitive part of our brain, the amygdala pumps adrenaline to help us fight this monster, outrun the monster, or freeze in the hopes that the monster won’t see us. None of these approaches work very well for speakers at the front of the room.
Because we don’t attack, run, or freeze, our bodies must do something with all that adrenaline and the result is all of the uncomfortable and detrimental symptoms we experience on stage.
But what if…
What if we could “reframe” the audience from appearing to be a threat to something else entirely? What if we could keep the adrenaline from releasing into our bloodstream at all and therefore completely forego the need for a flight, fight, or freeze response. Good news… we can!
It turns out that when our brains perceive someone (or a group) who needs our help versus a threatening crowd, our prefrontal cortex is ignited (versus our amygdala), and we automatically engage with empathy (versus fear.) When we feel empathy, good feeling chemicals are released like serotonin and oxytocin which actually calm our nervous system instead of the adrenalin which ramps it up.
So, the cool speaker “hack” for calming your stage fright, butterflies, and nerves is actually to practice what I call “the reframe.” Reframing your view of your audience from an audience full of judgment to an audience full of pain and in need of your help is the fastest and most certain way of calming yourself, engaging empathy, and walking confidently to the front of the room. But don’t try to do it for the first time when you are walking onto the stage. Just knowing and understanding this tip won’t mean you’ve mastered it. That requires advanced practice.
In the days leading up to your talk, sit quietly two or three times a day, close your eyes, and envision your audience. If you begin to feel nervous, bless the reminder that you have framed them as a body of judgment. Be grateful for the ability to see it for what it is and then take a deep breath. Now, imagine why your audience has chosen your topic. What problem does your content solve? What pain might it ease or what confusion might it clear up for them?
Imagine their faces when they suddenly feel the hope, relief, or solution for which they have been searching. Focus for several minutes on how their lives will benefit once they understand the ideas you’ll be presenting. Keep refocusing on these thoughts until you feel more calm and peaceful… you may even experience a feeling of pride or happiness at the ability to be the conduit of so much hope and relief.
It’s a delight for me to know at the beginning of my talks that my audience is getting ready to be introduced to a whole new way of thinking and relating to my topic. I love the fact that I know I’m going to give them simple tools, a new mindset, and an amazing feeling of hope where they had been feeling defeated or lost. When I put my focus on them and their situations instead of on me and how well I will perform, I always feel better and much less nervous. Practicing this often before you take the stage will give you the ability to notice more quickly how you are feeling and make the adjustment right then and there. And, the more times you give your talk, land your message, and see the results, the more you’ll believe that you are there to put a big bandage on your audience’s wounds and a beautiful suave on their pain.
Nervousness is always an extension of our focus being on us and our performance. Empathy is an extension of our focus being on them and our ability to ease their pain and discomfort.
We are here to serve, not shine; to bless, not impress; and to contribute, not perform. Remember (and practice) this and your nerves will be a thing of the past.
“The way you overcome shyness is to become so wrapped up in something that you forget to be afraid.”
~ Lady Bird Johnson