Nervousness is produced by purely psychological means, it can be controlled by purely psychological means. This is a point which many speakers have not realized. Bleeding when you cut yourself is a physical event, and requires a physical cure such as a bandage. Nervousness has real enough physical manifestations, such as sweating, feeling sick, and trembling. But it has a purely mental cause; bandages won’t help nervousness, but ideas will.
In this article I am going to offer a series of ideas which will help you to see nervousness in perspective, and to control its effects. But in the end, the only cure for excessive nervousness is experience. And that is the most difficult thing to get if you are over nervous. The solution, as I suggested earlier in the chapter, is to set yourself less stressful speaking assignments for the first few times. As you gain experience, your nervousness will subside, and you will be able to face a large audience. But don’t be ambitious first time out; learner speakers should drive carefully. And when making your first trial runs, remember the points made in this section. Each will reduce nervousness to a level where you are able to start to speak; increasing experience will then get the problem finally under control.
The first idea which offers a ‘cure’ for nervousness is the realization that the effects of nerves can rarely be seen from the outside. You feel dreadfully exposed when standing in front of an audience, but the plain fact is that they can’t see what you feel inside; you are not made of perspex. It is almost always true that you look better than you feel. Like the ducks on the Bishop’s pond, you may be paddling like hell underneath, but on the surface all appears calm. Remember that most of the audience are quite some distance away. Your eyelid may be trembling, your knee cap jumping like a jack-in-the- box, and your stomach churning like a steam engine, but none of this is visible from a few feet away. The back row can see nothing; even the front row can see little of what is really going on inside. So providing you prevent yourself pacing up and down, or waving your arms about randomly, you will appear to be calm, even if you are not.
Nervous speakers can rationalize their nervousness by thinking about the real situation they are in. Think about the audience as people, their motives, their hopes, and their interests; it will help focus your attention on realities, rather than your lurking fears. Here are six reflections which will help you gain this perspective:
- It is an undoubted fact that an audience is made uncomfortable by a nervous speaker. There is a strong empathy between speaker and listener. One of the great showmen of speaking, Dale Carnegie, encapsulated this point in his dictum: ‘I’m OK, you’re OK.’ Making yourself relax is a kindness to them as well. Think of yourself as helping them, and you will feel they are helping you.
- Remember that the audience is not hostile. You were asked to speak, therefore they do want to know what you have to say. You are welcomed, since in effect, the audience has initiated the conversation by asking your opinion on a subject. They want to learn for their own benefit, and your job is to help. You also have the power of novelty, for they certainly haven’t heard it before, at least not your way.
- Remember that you are much more awake than they are, and much more self-critical. Therefore you are much more aware of errors and pauses than they are. What seemed like a dreadful mistake to you, was probably almost unnoticed by them. It may take them several minutes to become aware that something you said was peculiar. If you calmly correct the mistake, they will hardly realize you made it. Pauses, too, are perceived differently by speaker and listener. The audience is living on a different time scale, and what seems like eternity to the speaker may be barely noticeable to the listeners.
- They are going to be more embarrassed than you, if the worst happens and the talk collapses. It is only kindness to them, then, to keep going. Realizing that they are more frightened of failure than you are, makes it easier to be sensible. So try to keep the talk in order, for their sake.
- An audience is naturally well disposed and sympathetic. Speakers are frightened of audiences because they imagine them to be composed of cruel ogres, who take malicious pleasure in failure, and sadistic delight in mocking errors. You may be surprised to know, if you are nervous, that this is not the case. Audiences feel involved with the success of the presentation, and the natural kindness of people is increased by their concern that everything should go well.
- Even if everything does go wrong, they can’t (and won’t) actually shoot you. It’s worth seeing your nervousness in perspective: what do you expect to happen if you make a mistake? The fact is that in many years of watching and teaching effective speaking I have never once heard derisive laughter. If the speaker is nervous, and makes mistakes, there is a sense of concern, and support from the listeners. The penalties for mistakes are very small, and most mistakes seem much bigger to the speaker than to the listeners, who may hardly notice. Don’t worry: it is not as bad as that!
In summary, one important cure for nervousness is to see what you are afraid of in a true perspective. Don’t think of the audience as hostile and frightening: talk to them as individuals, and think of them as a collection of people. You would not feel that bad about talking to any one of them alone. Follow Machiavelli, ‘divide and rule’. Remember that anxiety is usually at its peak just before you start talking. Once you are under way, you have to concentrate on what you are saying, and you forget about yourself. The keys are seeing the situation in perspective, careful preparation, and a realistic assessment of the audience. Providing you don’t try to put on an elaborate front which you cannot sustain, nothing is likely to go wrong.
There remain, however, people whose misfortune is being over nervous, and who find simple rational self-control little help. In some cases this over sensitivity is genetic, in some cases it is due to bad experiences, such as too much hostility and teasing from school mates (perhaps because of a temporary problem—a stammer, a lisp, or a silly mother). Whatever the cause, there is no doubt that there are many people who cannot get on top of their nervousness by rationalization.
They undoubtedly have an additional burden. Sartre once said that no one was born a coward, and everyone had the choice of whether he was going to be a coward or not. Nature endowed some people with a more lively sense of fear, and these people undoubtedly had more to triumph over in order to be brave. But nature had not made them cowards as such; that was solely, and only, their own choice. It is a stern lesson. If you are over nervous, it does not mean you cannot be a successful speaker, it merely means you have more work to do.