“Do you get nervous before you speak?”
“Do you get nervous before you speak?”
This is one of the most commonly asked questions I get when people find out I am a “speaker”! If you are someone who dreads having to speak in public, fear not – you are in good company – “Glossophobia” is a very common condition!!
Wikipedia states: “it has been estimated that 75% of all people experience some degree of anxiety/nervousness when public speaking. In fact, surveys have shown that most people fear public speaking more than they fear death”(!) (The exclamation mark was mine!).
So how do I answer the “nerves” question? Even though I have probably spoken in public thousands of times… the answer is always the same: “YES – I always get nervous”! I usually qualify this by saying that I prefer the word “excited” rather than “nervous”. Though the symptoms are the same, “excited” is a much more positive word – and indicates welcome and pleasurable anticipation rather than fear! Yet I know of several people – some who are not professional speakers – who do not experience any stress at all when faced with making a speech, and who welcome the opportunity to do so!
In particular – on a recent visit to my dentist I found out he was off to Edinburgh to be Best Man at a wedding. Knowing that a Best Man’s speech is often one of the most daunting to deliver I commented “you must be nervous” – to which he replied “no I’m not actually – I have done several and I really enjoy them”! This is a rare person indeed! (Though I am not surprised – for not only is Imi a brilliant dentist – I have always known him to be a naturally confident person, chatty, articulate and friendly. All of which contribute to what I feel is an essential attribute of a good speaker – “likeability”! This is explored in a later post – see here.
When people express surprise that I still get nervous having been a professional speaker for many years I always say that I welcome it – and that “if I’m not nervous I’m not ready”. I regard “nerves” as my friend – ensuring I am focused and not complacent, and gearing up my brain to be sharp!
However – I usually prefer to say that I get “excited” – which is a more positive word – rather than “nervous” – which has negative connotations. Re-framing anxiety into something positive and exciting is a better way to acknowledge your feelings, and helps you focus less on the potential for things to go wrong. “Excited” hints at an eager anticipation of something enjoyable – rather than something to be feared – though the physical symptoms are the same! Barry Cryer – veteran comedy scriptwriter and one of the UK’s best known after-dinner speakers calls it “creative apprehension”!
Performance psychologist Gene Moyle says re-framing the situation (treating feelings of anxiety as excitement) can actually have a significant impact on changing the chemical make-up of the brain.
It may seem strange, but many experienced actors, comedians and musicians suffer from nerves – even those we normally think of as having a super confident stage persona. “Stage fright” – as it is better known – has affected performers like Barbara Streisand, Sir Laurence Olivier, John Lennon, Adele, Mariah Carey, Michael Gambon and the uber-cool Robbie Williams – who cancelled his record breaking Stadium tour in 2006 due to severe stage fright… and didn’t tour again until 2013.
Another term for stage fright is “performance anxiety”, and it can often lead to the performer being physically sick before each performance. Sir Laurence Olivier was well known for vomiting before his stage appearances – and not just on the opening night – before all of them!
Sportsmen and women are not immune – in my own sport – Rugby Union – legendary Welsh fly-half Neil Jenkins was famously known for throwing up before big games, as was Welsh Captain and No. 8 Ryan Jones. In February 2017 Gloucester and Scotland scrum half Rory Lawson admitted in an interview on Radio 5 before the 6 Nations tournament that “he felt ‘much sharper’ as a result of throwing up prior to every game.” You can watch the clip HERE.
I remember from my own playing days at Gloucester one of my team-mates who would disappear to the toilets shortly before kick-off … only to reappear a few minutes later looking pale and tense – and we all knew he had “been for a puke”!
This never worried us – we knew it was his own way of dealing with the pressure of 10,000 fans awaiting our arrival on the pitch. Interestingly he was a class player famed for his deadly accurate, ice-cool goal kicking, whatever the conditions. His “nerveless” pressure kicks proved to be match winners on many occasions!
Strange isn’t it – from an extreme physical reaction like vomiting due to nerves … leading to consistently immaculate performances described as “nerveless” – what on earth is going on!!
In the next few posts I will examine the phenomenon surrounding “performance anxiety” (aka “nerves”) to find out what is happening in our body and the reasons why. I will look at the symptoms (including vomiting!), their physical causes and then suggest some tips for controlling them – or at least harnessing them to improve performance rather than ruin it! As the well-known saying goes: “it’s OK to have butterflies – as long as you get them to fly in formation”.
So what are the symptoms – including butterflies – and their causes? Find out in my next post!
If you are looking for a speaker or conference host to ensure the success of your next event – please get in touch!
If you are a speaker who has experience of “coping with nerves” – please share your observations in the comments box below!