Don’t Panic: How to Manage Public Speaking Jitters

It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.

Mark Twain

For many of us, public speaking can be a nerve-racking experience. Literally placing ourselves, front and center stage for public scrutiny, rarely tops our fun-to-do list. My first time presenting a wellness seminar was just that – all butterflies and sweaty palms. Despite my fear that I was going to faint or far worse, forget how to speak, the event was a success.

I have since learned that with preparation and practice, good speakers are not born but made.  Even a charismatic, masterful orator like former President Bill Clinton put in time honing his public speaking skills.

Here are some strategies that I have found helpful:

Learn – Take the mystery out of public speaking by enrolling in a communication skills workshop where you can learn the how-to-dos of skilled presenting or join a Toastmasters club where you can practice in a friendly, supportive environment.

Prepare – Being organized means less overall stress. What is your key message? What is your objective? Who is your audience? How long will you be speaking? With all this in mind, create a working script, which outlines and organizes your purpose and speaking points. Be brief, clear and affirmative in what you wish to communicate. Lose the extraneous facts or lose your audience. Know your topic and expect questions.

Practice – Practice makes perfect. Rehearse your presentation aloud to formulate a natural, conversational speaking style.  What does your body language convey? According to one communication study, body language represents 55% of the message, while tone and words represent only 38% and 7% respectively. Videotape your practice-runs to identify strengths and correct weaknesses.

Connect – Interact with the audience prior to your presentation. This may entail a quick hello, welcoming words or simple handshake. The point of this exercise is that when you deliver your presentation, you will see a few friendly, familiar faces in the audience and be less nervous.

Shine – Be authentic. If you are personable with a wicked sense of humour, let it shine through in your presentation. If you are not naturally gregarious, simply be yourself. Pretending to be someone you are not can come across as forced and only heighten your feelings of awkwardness and anxiety.  Most importantly, be passionate about your topic. Enthusiasm is contagious.

Visualize – Give yourself a psychological boost by using self-guided imagery. In the same manner that athletes visualize the successful execution of a dive or a ski run, picture yourself speaking confidently to a cheering, welcoming crowd.

Breathe – Practice this deep breathing exercise for both calming and energizing benefits. Sit in a comfortable position with the back straight and feet flat on the floor. Relax your shoulders and rest your hands palm down on your thighs. Close your eyes and breathe in through your nose, quietly and slowly. Allow the breath to come naturally and as you exhale through your mouth, count “one” silently to yourself. On the next exhale, mentally count “two.” The following exhale, count “3” and so on up to “five.” Repeat for as many times needed.

Nourish – Optimize your physical and mental performance with regular physical activity, proper sleep and good nutrition. Adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night for good health. Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, drink water daily to stay hydrated and limit your caffeine and sugar intake, which can stress the immune system and increase overall anxiety.

At the end of the day, the best way to manage our public speaking jitters is simply by doing it – as often as possible. Are you ready to stand up and speak out?

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