Speakers get nervous. It’s only natural. For most people, it is an opportunity on an important stage to make a good impression – or not! Sympathetic supporters try to help with what they think is good advice. Sometimes it is; but often it’s not. In fact, some of the worst advice I’ve ever heard has been given to speakers by friends, family and colleagues.
“Don’t be nervous… you’ll be great.”
When has telling people not to be nervous made them less nervous? It’s like telling someone not to feel hot. You cannot just switch these sensations on and off. And telling someone suffering stage fright that they will be great is unhelpful or simply unheard.
It’s terrible advice because most people are already telling themselves, “I should not be so nervous.” It simply reinforces their feeling of wrongness. Not only are they feeling nervous; they’re feeling guilty for feeling that way! What a sure-fire way to erode self-confidence.
Instead, they should be told that nervousness is normal. Some of the world’s most famous performers still get debilitating performance anxiety. Once they accept the fact that this is just the body’s natural reaction to a high-stress scenario, they can look at ways to mitigate the effects. This might be slow deep breathing, stepping out their presentation (metaphorically and/or literally), listening to their favourite music – it’s very individual.
Same as “Don’t be nervous”. Wasted words.
Instead, recognise the adrenalin rush and help turn it from a negative energy to a positive excitement by reassuring them how much the audience is looking forward to their presentation.
“Keep changing your presentation so it will always be interesting for you.”
Compare your speech to a tour. You are the tour guide, the venues you visit constitute your content and your audience is the tour group. Imagine you are a tourist in that group and the guide says, “Welcome to X. This is the first time I’ve been here. The other places get pretty boring after a while.”
Your interest and satisfaction must be based on your ability to interest the audience, not to interest yourself. And to give your audience the most interesting experience, you need to know your content well – especially your key phrases, facts and stories.
Instead they should be told, “You’ve done this before, so you know what works. Just give them that.”
“Imagine them naked.”
This one has been around for eons. And it’s always been silly advice. The likely result is that you will find it distracting,,,or disturbing!
Instead the advice should be to locate two or three people in the audience (ideally seated in different areas) who seem interested. Make eye contact with these people. Ignore those with negative body language. In a room of 20 or more there will always be someone who doesn’t want to be there (unless you are a celebrity!) They are not your problem. Just focus on the ones who do want to be there.
“Everything you say must be new to them.”
This creates a mindset where a speaker feels guilt if they say something that audience members have heard before. They then apologetically introduce their content with lines like:
- “I’m sorry if you’ve heard this before… “
- “You may have already seen this; and, if so, I apologise.”
Instead they should be told, “It doesn’t matter if some of them may have heard of it before. Many won’t have and you’ll be using it in your own original context.” The reality is, there is no way you can know all that audience members have heard before, so setting yourself an ‘originality test’ like this is absurd.
Speakers remember: all advice is well-intentioned; but that doesn’t make it good. And if you’re trying to assist a speaker; be wise with your advice.