Public speaking gets a bad rap. One well-known poll places glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, at the top – making it a more terrifying prospect than spiders, enclosed spaces and even dying. (As Jerry Seinfeld wryly observed, at a funeral, most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.)
Many of our clients at MSB Executive report feeling nervous – in some cases, very nervous – before speaking to an audience. We are commonly asked for advice on ‘combatting’ or ‘getting rid of’ nerves. Our response takes people by surprise: we tell them, ‘Don’t try to combat your nerves. This is the wrong approach. Your nerves are important!’
If combat is the wrong approach, what is the right one? Our answer to this question involves three stages: understand, manage and appreciate.
First, understand that nerves are a fight-or-flight response trigged by a situation of extreme danger. Or rather, triggered when the brain perceives a situation of extreme danger. Because in the case of public speaking, the brain has got it wrong! You are not on the savannah facing a sabre-toothed tiger. You are in the fourth-floor conference room facing your colleagues in HR. The nausea, the blushing, the sweaty palms – these are all vastly disproportionate to the situation at hand. Don’t let your body fool you into thinking this is life or death.
The second stage is to manage nerves. We have plenty of tips and techniques for managing the dry mouth, knocking knees, racing mind and other symptoms of nerves that threaten to derail a speech or presentation.
Appreciate Your Nerves
When we come to the third stage – appreciate your nerves – we are able to draw on our performance training and experience. Nerves are a fact of life for actors: we depend on them. Feeling nervous before a show gets us in the game. Judi Dench describes nerves as ‘an actor’s fuel.’ We know how to put our nervous energy to good use by channeling it into our performance. That’s what gives good actors their unmistakable fizz and stage presence. At MSB Executive, we show our clients how nervous energy, properly managed, can power a business presentation in the same way.
Feel The Buzz
After a successful presentation – particularly if we were very nervous beforehand – we feel a buzz, that post-performance euphoria when we know we ‘knocked it out of the park’. This is partly rational: we take satisfaction in having mastered a challenge. But a recent scientific study suggests that there is something deeper going on. The buzz could in fact be a direct consequence of having felt nervous beforehand. The study in question placed its subject into a situation of stress for a short time and then took blood tests at intervals. The remarkable finding was that soon after feeling stress, the subject’s body was flooded with white blood cells. The stress had actually boosted the immune system.
If you think back to the savannah, this makes perfect sense. If the tiger takes a bite but doesn’t kill you, your body needs to be primed to fight off infection and heal. The immune system needs a boost.
Though ongoing stress is bad for us, the study suggests that we should embrace brief bouts of stress. Perhaps we should take a thrill-seeker’s approach to public speaking. Next time the nerves strike, remind yourself of the health benefits. Public speaking could save your life!