The speaker came to a natural break in his presentation and paused for us to consider the points he had made. Yet, he lingered a bit longer than necessary. Then he picked up the bottle of water and took a long drink.
It was then that I noticed the anxiety on his face and realised that he was experiencing every presenter’s worst nightmare: he had forgotten what to say next.
We rallied to his cause, filling a few precious minutes with questions and a bit of banter. Responding to our questions gave him the confidence to continue with the presentation. I will never know if he continued from the right point, but it matters little now.
It happens to the best of us
It is a common misconception that skilled and experienced speakers don’t get nervous. Nothing could be further from the truth! I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing some excellent speeches and presentations, both in our Club and at various business events. I don’t anyone that doesn’t get at least a tiny bit nervous.
Far from being a problem or a weakness, it’s perfectly natural. What experienced speakers have learned to do is to manage those nerves, so that it doesn’t impact negatively on their presentations.
You can find a lot of advice on this topic (including from my fellow Toastmaster Gavin Meikle), but here are some of the things that I do to combat public speaking nerves.
1. Be prepared
Yes, it’s a cliché, but the more preparation I put into a speech or presentation, the more confident I am that it will be a success. I rehearse important speeches, sometimes in front of my spouse or colleagues (which also helps with timing).
Structure is an important part of speech preparation. A well-structured speech will be easier to deliver…and easier for the audience to follow. Both of these factors help to build confidence and calm my nerves.
2. Break the ice
I like to do this with a comment (or joke) that is not necessarily related to the speech, but which breaks the tension and gets the audience onside immediately. Jokes can be risky, but it’s normally easy to find something on which you and the audience can agree, such as “Isn’t it a nice day?” or “That was an excellent meal!” depending on the situation.
It may sound strange, but a lot of people in the audience are probably nervous for you as well – they wonder how they will cope with watching a car crash! So some kind of icebreaker can help to make them comfortable as well.
3. Open strongly
If I nail the first part of a speech (and succeed in engaging with the audience) it gives me confidence which I carry through to the rest of the speech. So I try and make sure to have a strong Introduction.
For example, if you begin with your central proposition (a good idea in informative or persuasive speeches) it is likely to be something that you feel strongly about, or a topic on which you are knowledgeable and you should come across as confident and assured.
Another good way to start a speech or presentation is with a story. An interesting, relevant and engaging story is often easier to deliver that dry facts. You (and the audience) may get so caught up in the flow that you’ll forget all about your nerves!
Embrace Your Demons!
Nervousness happens to the best of us, but it need not spoil a good presentation. So don’t bite your fingernails: embrace your nerves and use them to become a better speaker.
And if you need advice and support, your local Toastmasters club is a great place to start!