Public speaking is never easy, no matter how often you find yourself in front of an audience. There are so many factors involved. There’s the space you’ll be speaking in, the audience’s size, whether they have been warmed up to listen to you, your mood and the time of day, the subject matter, how you’ve been introduced by your host or co-worker… It can feel like a minefield and nerves can get the better of you. However, even though you can’t control everything about this moment, you can regulate it so that you’re filled with excitement rather than dread.
Let’s talk nerves. With all the above elements (and a myriad more) in play – in fact, because of those elements – of course you’re feeling those butterflies in your stomach. You should be nervous. You’re undertaking a moment that contains a whole raft of elements that are out of your control. A University of Wales research paper on sports professionals found, when interviewing elite swimmers, that having ‘butterflies’ actually contributed to a positive performance rather than hindered them.
So, nerves are good. They’re your friend. Being nervous means you’re ready to do this, you’re committed and you’re forward-facing. Now you just have to be present and in the moment. This is the time to work within your sphere of influence, rather than your sphere of interest. You can’t change the acoustics of the room you’re in, the distracting lunchtime scheduling or the way that accounts guy is glaring at you from the second row… so let’s concentrate on the factors you can regulate.
Draw 180 Breaths
This is the moment before you get on stage or swing into that boardroom. Are you used to performing? Maybe you hate it. Perhaps you’ve had a tough morning following a bad night’s sleep. This simple trick will change everything for you. It’s the moment you concentrate on deep, calm breathing for just three minutes. Did I say ‘just’? It’ll feel like a lifetime! But commit to this simple meditation trick because it’ll have you calm and collected. In improv, when you invest in your scene partner and commit to being entirely present, everything clicks sweetly into place. If you have a work buddy who’ll breathe with you, this moment will be even more powerful.
Ride 180 Seconds
Good grief, those first three minutes of your presentation are tough – thanks to your body producing, like the good body it is, adrenaline. Also known as epinephrine, this ‘acute stress response’ hormone will – even if you’re a seasoned performer – increase your heart rate, make your palms warmer and even cause you to tremble. When you aren’t a five-nights-a-week performer, the adrenaline effect can hit you like a barn door in a hurricane. Even after your pre-talk 180-second breathing exercise, you will, inevitably, experience a massive adrenaline kick in the first three minutes of your presentation. So: be prepared! Know your first three minutes off by heart. And hey: that’s only your first three minutes. Yup, this is permission not to learn the whole thing by rote. You don’t need to! Just learn the first three minutes and when the adrenalin punches into your system, you’ll be in control. Your voice won’t wobble. You won’t shallow-breathe. Your hands won’t tremble tellingly as you hold your notes. Happily, once the adrenaline kick settles down, as it must, you’ll be fine again. Knowing it’s coming changes everything. Ride that wave!
Scan 180 Degrees
Sometimes the audience is small and their quiet sits in judgement on your head like a stone. Other times, you’re speaking to dozens – even hundreds – of people, and the feeling of being outnumbered can be overpowering. But here’s the important thing to remember: they want to like you. They want to be interested, to be entertained. If you can include them and show how much it matters to you that your information helps them, the feeling of being pinned, hunted, in the corner will change forever in your head. Pick one person to speak to, then another, then another. Use the whole room. Feel the whole breadth of the room and be excited to impart your knowledge to each and every person individually. In improv, connecting with the audience is everything and feeling their reactions changes your delivery in a subtle but crucial way. So scan a full 180 degrees and take stock of the size of the space, the size of the audience, and the ‘temperature’ of the room. Even if it’s less than welcoming, you’ll have assimilated and marshalled the information about the crowd in front of you and therefore be more in control of your ‘animal fear’.
These three tips – to be applied before, beginning and during your talks – will change the stressful dynamic for you and put you in a position of power. Instead of feeling hunted, you’ll be the one in charge. Happy presenting!
Victoria Hogg is an Applied Improv and Theatre Practitioner. Click here for her next course, at Goldsmiths College, University of London, starting 21 February. For improv for business information click here.