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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Coping with nerves: the credibility problem

Nervousness is probably the biggest problem to be surmounted for most inexperienced speakers. Were it not for nervousness, common sense, and normal intelligence, would ensure that most talks were interesting and well planned. But nervousness seems to disable common sense, and normal intelligence gets swamped by anxiety. A blog like this is needed just because speakers get nervous. Like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights, they don’t know which way to run. All sorts of bizarre behavior results, unless there are firm guide lines. Like clinging to the wreckage in a storm, any fragment of advice gives security. Even if the speaker doesn’t feel at all like smiling, for example, the knowledge that he or she ought to smile is enough to make them feel that they are doing the right thing.

Nervousness is a very real problem, and is the root of most of the other problems with speaking. We all talk competently in a group of friends, but as soon as the group of friends becomes a wall of strangers, nervousness usurps our every-day competence, and we need the prop of advice.

Unfortunately, many experts on speaking dismiss nervousness as not worth discussing. Like laziness, or cowardice, these blog seem to imply that it is something to be ashamed of, and certainly not something to be discussed. The speaker may be jollied along with advice like ‘Don’t worry’, or ‘It’ll be all right’. He or she is given the impression that nervousness, like incontinence, is something which is better not thought about. It will go away if you ignore it, and if not, there’s nothing to be done about it. Nervousness is beyond help, these books seem to imply, and only courage will overcome it. Good chaps put a brave face on it, and never mention it to other chaps.

Sadly, all this hearty pretense is no help; it merely increases the sufferer’s sense of his or her own inadequacy. It is also cruel: extreme nervousness is one of the most unpleasant experiences most civilized people go through. It is a form of physical and mental suffering which is unparalleled. Extreme misery, anguished anxiety, and even physical nausea are added to shame and a sense of inadequacy. Embarrassment is the least of the suffering. It may take weeks, months even to get over the misery caused by a catastrophic failure to cope with nervousness. The speaker may go through savage reassessments of his or her abilities as a result of ruining a presentation through nerves. Undoubtedly, nervousness is a serious problem; it needs careful and considered help.

Nervousness can be helped, and eventually reduced to manageable proportions. It is, after all, a purely mental phenomenon. Attitudes, and knowledge about the cause and function of the anxiety, advice about how to reduce it, and experience which renders the terrifying familiar, are the clues. Much of the work on nervousness has been done by musicians: talented young musicians find the intricate dexterity required to play their instruments turned into clumsiness in front of judges and audiences. Since it is clearly a waste, musicians have studied the problems of tension in performance. Speakers, who have similar problems, can benefit from the knowledge and techniques gained from these studies.

The first thing to learn about nervousness is that it is universal. Every nervous speaker thinks that he or she is the only one in the world to suffer. Compared with the calm competence of every one else, he or she feels their own shameful failure as a personal inadequacy. The truth is that nervousness when facing an audience is very common. Almost everyone suffers from nerves, even experienced professionals, and the reason why we are not aware of this is simply that the basic effect of nerves doesn’t show. Providing the gestures are controlled, butterflies in the stomach are invisible to the audience. So the calm and confident speaker you watched with envy, was almost certainly trembling like a leaf inside: you just couldn’t see it.

It is a good thing that speakers are nervous. Contrary to popular belief, the calm and controlled speaker is acting, he or she is disguising nervousness in a practised simulation of indifference. If he or she were really not nervous, there would be no energy to give the talk: nerves are useful to the speaker, without them he would go to sleep. Even people who make their living from appearing in front of audiences—actors, comedians, performers—are nervous just before going on stage. They rely on these nerves to give them the boost of energy which makes them sparkle. And the shot of adrenalin they get becomes a fix. It is something they can’t do without, and is probably why these people love the stage experience so much. Nervousness is a useful, and essential part of performance, not something to worry about or be ashamed of. The art of effective speaking is not ceasing to be nervous; it is using the nervous energy to improve the talk. Standing up and speaking requires a great deal of effort: the slight lift given by nervousness arouses our energies.

If you feel you have an unusually nervous disposition, you may be surprised to know that you are not alone. Such sensitivity is common; psychologists calculate that: ‘Between five and eight per cent of the population are unduly anxious.’ Knowing that you are not alone doesn’t change the fact that you are nervous, but it should give you hope that your nervousness can be conquered. One of the more unpleasant features of being very nervous is a sense of isolation, and
the fear of shame if others see that you are nervous. Take heart, there is nothing especially unusual in being highly sensitive, and you are far from alone. Almost certainly, there are compensating advantages in your higher than average levels of arousal, and sensitive response to anxiety. Highly nervous people, for instance, are often of above average intelligence. It is possible to apply this intelligence to solving the problem of nervousness by learning about it, and applying the results of research. The higher sensitivity is also compensated by greater alertness, and awareness of audience reactions. It sounds paradoxical, but is none the less true. Nervous people usually make good speakers, once they have tamed and applied their nervousness.