It is surprising to realize I have written 77 Monthly Memos and am just now getting around to writing about what to do when you are nervous. (I’ve touched on it before, but this is the first straight take on the topic!) I was prompted by reading “Jacked Up” — a book by former Jack Welch speech writer Bill Lane. In it, Lane makes the point simply in a sentence which ends one of the book’s chapters; “Appearing nervous is fine. It conveys to the audience that you care about how well you perform in front of them; that they matter.” Well put.
Too often we give ourselves or others a bad mark for being nervous in front of an audience, but I have a very different reaction. When working with a team, for example, and one of the speakers is nervous, that person is often far from my biggest worry. Instead, I am much more concerned about someone who seems to be “mailing it in” or has trouble communicating any passion for the project. The audience doesn’t know what to make of the bored or disconnected person. They question the message the person is delivering, or, more likely, forget it altogether!
The nervous speaker, as Lane suggests, is at the very least engaged in the process. They care. What’s more, the audience readily identifies with the nervousness because they’ve been there! Here are a few suggestions on dealing with nervousness and making it an advantage.
Preparation: First, if you are nervous because you didn’t prepare you’ll not get much sympathy from me. Referring back to Lane’s book, he recounts many occasions when Jack Welch would rip apart presenters within GE who would dare come before him unprepared. (If you don’t have much time to prepare, see the Monthly Memo from last month!) For those of us who are naturally nervous speakers, prep time is often your best friend. As you practice you will start to feel more at ease and when you’re finally up there delivering the thing you’ll at least be able to remember where you are — a big key to staying calm.
Follow a roadmap: As part of your preparation process come up with a way to create notes that will provide a roadmap to your speech. Outlines with the major points are usually best, but work up your own system. Create the document in a way you can quickly look down and find your place and have several copies for the big day. Also, after a speech, figure out what worked and what tripped you up and then slowly perfect the process as you prep for the next one.
Admit it: Nearly every person in your audience has nervously delivered a speech or presentation — they get it — so often there is no harm in saying, “You know, I’m pretty nervous up here, but I really believe in this project/idea/product/whatever and I hope you’ll bear with me.” Most every time you’ll score points for being straight with them, and it will calm you down as well! You’ve addressed the elephant in the room and can therefore move on to make your point — which is why we’re all there in the first place!