(Updated February 2020)
Wouldn’t it be great to be able to stand in front of an audience and feel calm and relaxed? Actually, that should not be your aim! While it might be nice to feel calm, the reality is that you generally perform better when you are a bit nervous.
Imagine you are an Olympic athlete turning up to the start of a race. Do you think that you will feel calm? Of course not. You will be very nervous and rightly so. Once more those nerves will serve you well as they mean your body is producing adrenalin that will make you run faster.
When it comes to public speaking something similar applies. If you are calm the chances are that you will come across as laid back but not particularly effective or dynamic. However, with presenting, being very nervous doesn’t serve you well either. When you start to show visible signs of fear such as shaking, sweating, or going red, you become focused on what is happening to you rather than what you are saying, to the detriment of your performance.
You want to hit that sweet spot, where a bit of nervousness gives you optimal performance. Remember that those nerves are a sign that your body is preparing to perform. You want enough adrenalin to enhance your performance but not so much that it starts to undermine it. The Yerkes-Dobson Law explains this relationship between stress and performance and the corresponding 'inverted U' graph - where performance increases with nerves before sharply decreasing.
The good news is that you don’t need to eliminate your fear. People who are very nervous of public speaking (say a 9/10 or a 10/10 on the chart above) only need to reduce their fear levels to 5/10 or 6/10 to see a big improvement in their performance. And it is quite common for this to happen quickly when they start to work on their presentation skills.
It might take longer to get to 3/10 but that’s OK because your performance is now acceptable and probably no worse than that of most people around you! I have just used 3/10 to illustrate as this feels about right for me. Some people may find they perform better when they are a little more or less nervous than this. For me, a little bit of nervousness feels like nervous energy rather than fear. In fact, there is a close relationship between nervousness and excitement as anyone who has been on a roller coaster will attest to!
But if you are someone who is very fearful of public speaking to the extent that it is affecting your performance, how do you go about reducing your fear? Initially you need a safe space to practice so you can build up evidence that you can present effectively – or at least without anything really bad happening. There is a great TED talk by Eduardo Briceno “How to get better at the things you care about” about how we should spend more time in the ‘learning zone’ and less in the ‘performance zone’.
In the learning zone you can try new things and make mistakes with no consequences. Too often we spend most of our time in the ‘high stakes’ performance zone where mistakes are risky and interpreted as ‘failure’.
Toastmasters offers a great opportunity to spend time in the ‘learning zone’ in a low-stakes and highly supportive environment. Fear-less courses offers an alternative for anyone whose nerves are preventing them joining Toastmasters.
Article written by Catherine Syme
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I get huge satisfaction from seeing the relief, pride, and even joy that people experience when they complete a course and reflect on the progress they have made. See what others say for some inspiring stories.