Speaker Bobby Earl talks about how he, early in his career, used to awaken to find his "mind" sitting on the bedpost above him. "I've been waiting for you," it announced daily, then went on to project an escalation of problems: You don't feel like getting out of bed; maybe you are sick. You probably have some rare and incurable disease that will cost you your income. Then you will have to foreclose on the house, file for bankruptcy and likely end up living on the street.
The whole process took less than 30 seconds.
Isn't this the same thing we do on the eve of, or day before, the Big Speech? We project disaster. We expect the roof to fall in. We anticipate some kind of rare but fatal rejection. Usually these pre-game jitters loom larger than the talk itself.
For neophytes, the apprehension can be stifling; seasoned speakers frequently experience the jitters as eagerness. Most of us realize a little of both.
"On the night before a new class," says Samara Bennette, speaker and educator, "I make myself look at my presentation in a positive manner by telling myself 'Oh cool. Tomorrow's the first day of this class.'
"If I go to bed with that attitude," Bennette says, "I wake up with the energy I need to perform the task. I don't have to work to pump myself up because the excitement about the positive aspects carries over to the day of the talk."
Having the jitters tells you that your energy is eager to be let loose. This added drive has many benefits. Anticipation can be...
For example, the former lead singer of Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks, believed that the anxiety she experienced prior to appearing on stage helped her perform better. If she didn't experience this excitement and nervousness, she worried about the success of the concert.
"It's all about the 'what ifs,'" says Maggie Dennison, a marketing consultant and writer who's working on her last assignment for the Distinguished Toastmaster award. She's a member of the Unity Speakeasy Toastmasters club in Santa Barbara, California.
"I used to have a lot of fear and anxiety about speaking," she says, "because I wasn't living in the present. I was either obsessing about the past or worrying about the future."
When it came to speaking assignments, the "what ifs" would hit Dennison hard. She'd have thoughts like:
Dennison calls it "catastrophizing:" projecting what mishap might occur in the future. "But now I attempt to concentrate on the task at hand," she says.
A sense of foreboding can freeze us in our shoes. And it freezes some of the most experienced performers, as well. Actress Kim Basinger planned to say a few pre-rehearsed remarks when she received her Oscar, but she was so anxious she couldn't remember what she wanted to say.
The late Johnny Carson, famous American television host of the Tonight Show, suffered anxiety prior to each of his performances on his program. Sir Lawrence Olivier, Joan Rivers, Helen Hayes, Sidney Poitier and quite a few other actors suffered apprehension prior to their performances.
Anxiety is a normal reaction to any new situation or to an event that triggers some previous trauma. You're likely to be unaware of the underlying roots of your anxiety. What you're more likely to experience is the feeling of panic.
Communication experts report that severe fright prior to a particular talk can be traced to one of three causes.
Psychologists talk about "trait" and "state" apprehension. Trait anxiety refers to an anxiety that lies within the individual that typically makes speaking with nearly anyone nerve-wracking. This is a type of social anxiety.
State anxiety relates to the specific context, or state, of the anticipation. This includes the type and size of the audience plus the particular setting. For instance, you might be comfortable speaking to a large, anonymous group but not to an intimate round-table gathering. Or you may feel anxious giving a talk in front of your colleagues but not to a group of lay people.
The good news is that the jitters are a learned behavior. And anything learned can be unlearned.
You know you've got 'em. And now you can better understand them. You know the rich and famous have them, too. Now what should you do about them?
Sometimes we get stuck in "that's just the way I am" thinking. But you were not born with a bent against public speaking or destined to worry yourself to death!
Change is more than possible - it's probable. Self-transformation is hard work but it works, and it's worth it.
Of course one of the best ways to knock out the nervousness is to practice your material. In a recent article in Prevention magazine, Dr. Peter Desberg, professor at Cal State University at Dominguez Hills, California, said "Repetition is the mother of retention." He claimed that knowing your talk well "beats back the jitters."
Here are some additional points to consider:
Dennison readily admits to practicing the technique of visualization, which has improved her concentration and allows her to live more easily in the moment. She says the mind can only hold one thought at a time. Now, rather than anticipating disaster, Dennison switches her attention.
"I concentrate on what I am doing now, then when finished, what I need to do next."
Her advice to speakers old and new: "Picture giving a rockin' speech to an audience that really enjoys it."