The closer you are physically to a “speaker in action” the easier it is to tell whether or not he or she is nervous. The tell-tale signs present vocally and/or physically, are numerous and occur individually or in “clusters”. Some examples are shallowness or shortness of breath, a quivering or high pitched voice, rushing, repetition of phrases such as “you know” or “basically”, sweating and fidgeting with hands or feet.
Why do these things happen? Isaac Newton (1642-1727) gave us an answer: “To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.” The symptom of nervousness emanates from mental anxiety and manifests in nervous energy. Energy is significant. Without energy the individual can achieve nothing. But in order to be productive, that energy must be under control. Nervousness in a speaker is a state in which a degree of available energy is outside of the control of that person. When speaking to an audience you need to have your wits about you as there are a number of different actions that need to be properly synchronized in order for you to come across convincingly. It follows then that nervous energy is energy wasted, or energy dissipated from where it should be going. Ideally, you want that energy working for you, not against you.
Experienced speakers are by no means immune from nervousness ahead of an address. The reason that polished speakers and presenters seem so much more confident is that they have learned how to channel their nervous energy. The view is that nervousness is not a bad thing, it is in fact quite natural. The trick is to learn to channel that energy. That’s all very well, but how, and where to?
The act of speaking involves air being pushed, in a controlled manner, through the trachea and over the larynx to create sound. Through a series of complex actions the brain dictates what the voice should say and how the words should be said. The muscle that controls the flow of air is situated above the stomach, below the rib cage and is known as the diaphragm. This is one of the most powerful and sophisticated muscles in the human body – and is the perfect storage place for all that nervous energy.
A typical nervous response is for energy to flow toward the limb ends. It’s common to observe a novice presenter fiddling with a pen or notes, or shuffling his feet. In order to eradicate this involuntary behaviour, you can use rehearsal time to mentally focus the nervous energy away from the hands and feet toward the diaphragm. That way, this energy is used productively to control the voice from the diaphragm instead of being wasted. Breathing becomes deeper, hands and feet are calm and the voice takes on an air of authority. As you rehearse channeling nervous energy to the diaphragm your confidence will increase and the nervous energy will literally begin dissipating. It’s a gradual process, but if you persevere, it works. This simple act of assuming control allows that fine precision instrument, the voice to operate optimally.
Just as the brain controls speech, it also sabotages speech by allowing anxiety to creep in. That energy needs to go somewhere, or your head will literally explode. That place should be the diaphragm in order to offset the process of increasing nervousness.
It’s important to note that nervousness seldom stems from a lack of topic knowledge, but rather a fear of presentation itself. So before you take to the podium, take 5 slow, deep breaths – in through the nose, and out through the mouth while establishing this mental process of control. This will exercise and relax the diaphragm simultaneously. Then check your attire, make sure that all equipment is working, put a smile on your face and stride forward.
You may experience the butterflies before a speech or presentation, but as the old saying goes, you want those butterflies flying neatly in formation!