I hurried towards the lectern at the front of the room, struggling to mentally tune out the rows of faces peering intently at me. Standing before the microphone I felt my stomach lurch, and I made some futile attempts to swallow and clear my throat. What on earth was happening to me?
A few months ago I’d been giving lectures in psychotherapy to a similar sized audience, and I’d felt perfectly focused, confident and at ease. But now it was a new year, with a brand new class of students, and out of nowhere I felt myself overcome with nervousness and self-doubt.
Any time you want to do something really well, whether it’s giving a speech or a presentation, or taking part in a competition, it’s natural to feel a certain amount of pressure to perform at your best.
In moderation, a degree of nervousness in situations like this can actually be helpful. You don’t want to be falling asleep in a job interview, or lazily paraphrasing Shakespeare on stage. The right amount of nerves can help you to feel energised, invigorated and completely focused.
But having too much nervous adrenaline in your system is like drinking far too many shots of espresso. When your heart is pounding and your mind is racing it makes it hard to think clearly and to speak coherently, and it stops you from being able to relax and trust yourself to deliver your best.
So what can you do to “re-wire” your nerves to make them work for you?
Here are three simple tips that I use personally, and that I also teach my hypnotherapy clients:
- Centre yourself
When most people get nervous, they are “up in their heads”, thinking to themselves about what could go wrong. For example, when I was walking out towards that lectern to give that talk, I had images in my mind of people judging me, and of me stuttering over my words. Not the most helpful images to have just before giving a lecture!
Sometimes people talk to themselves rapidly in their minds when they get nervous, saying things like
“You can’t screw this up!”
“Oh god! Oh god! Oh god!”
“I can’t do this! I can’t do this!” and so on.
Now it’s certainly possible to train yourself to think more positively about upcoming performances, but three minutes before you go on stage, it’s not usually very helpful to start arguing with your thoughts about who’s right.
Instead, I recommend you learn to get out of your head and to centre yourself in your body.
To do this, begin by slowing down. If you’re tapping your foot or your fingers, slow down the tapping. Keep tapping, but slow it down and make it more rhythmic.
Slow down your breathing. Allow each in-breath to be full and deep. Allow each out-breath to be like a long, smooth sigh of relief.
Just slow everything right down.
Then, with each out-breath, drop your attention down from your head, deeper into your body.
In many Chinese and Japanese martial arts, they train you to centre your attention an inch or two beneath and behind your navel. To try this, rest one hand over your navel, and imagine that the core of your being is there, in the centre of your body. Sense that this physical centre is the core of who you are.
Breathe slowly and deeply from your centre like this for a good couple of minutes, and you’ll be in a much better state when you begin to speak.
- Give a clear, direct, positive suggestion to your brain.
Your brain does many things without your conscious awareness, such as the way it dreams at night without you consciously planning those dreams, or the way that a great idea can suddenly strike you from out of the blue when you’re in the shower or out on a long walk.
What’s amazing, and what hypnotists have known for years, is that when you speak directly to the brain, it actually responds.
How this works is an interesting theoretical debate, but giving yourself positive suggestions really does work. In fact recent studies show that even listing positive adjectives to yourself like “confident” “relaxed” and “focused” before a performance can immediately put you into a more focused, positive state.
So if you tell your brain:
“Okay brain. In this upcoming event, I’d like to be completely focused, in flow, confident, energised and creative, and I’d like to experience a deep and genuine connection with the audience. Please make all the necessary adjustments inside me to allow this to happen… now“.
And then just for a moment, imagine seeing yourself as you’d like to be in that future event.
By doing all of that, it seeds positive expectations in your mind, and it primes you for success.
Please note that I’m not saying this will guarantee success. You can’t fully 100% control how any future situation will turn out. There might be a power cut. Someone else in the show might suddenly come down with a violent case of food poisoning. Uncertainties are part of life.
But by making a clear, positive request of yourself like this, it gives the goal-oriented aspect of your brain a positive direction to be moving in, and it mobilises the unconscious, creative parts of your mind to get to work on your behalf.
- No matter how you feel, be absolutely, fiercely determined to enjoy the event.
So let’s say that there’s a part of you that cares deeply about doing well in this upcoming event. A part of you that doesn’t want to let people down. A part of you that is terrified of making mistakes, and that thinks it has to do it all perfectly.
That’s all perfectly normal, and it simply means you’re human.
But as a human being you also have other parts to you. Whether you acknowledge it or not, you have an adrenaline junkie within you that relishes these moments in life when you get to feel fully alive. You also have a bold, adventurous part of you that thrives on challenge and stretching yourself. And you have an irreverent, silly part of you that finds a lot of things in life very funny indeed.
Even when you’re nervous, you can still connect with these different aspects of your psyche.
You can be nervous and excited at the same time.
You can be doubtful and genuinely amused at the same time.
You can be uncertain whilst fiercely going for something at the same time.
So allow yourself to feel nervous. It’s okay to feel that way, it’s perfectly natural and human. And then decide, with a fierce sincerity, that you’re going to enjoy the experience anyway.
This upcoming event is a moment in your life that you’ll never get to experience again. Millions of people around the world are slumped on their sofas watching daytime TV shows, right now as you’re reading this. Whereas you, in this upcoming event, have a chance to do something that stretches you, to feel fully alive, to shine.
Whether it goes perfectly or not, decide that one way or another you’re damn well going to enjoy it.
So with sincere curiosity, just ask yourself before the event:
“I wonder how many different ways this is going to be a surprising amount of fun“.
And notice what difference this creates in your attitude and in your experience of the event.
As for me, standing before that audience – I took a deep breath, and instinctively centred myself in the core of my body. I set a positive direction in my mind for how I wanted the talk to go. And then I leaped into action. (Metaphorically of course. In reality, I was still standing behind the lectern like a respectable teacher, not diving headlong into the audience like Mad Max).
And within a few minutes, those initial nerves had passed and I was engaging with the students and speaking confidently. And the lecture itself went very well indeed.
If you like the ideas in this post, take some time to thoroughly practice them, so that they become a resource you can draw upon when you need to.
And if you’d like to book a session with me to improve your public speaking confidence, you can get touch with me through the Contact page.