Speaking Gets on My Nerves

Speaking has a bad reputation with nerves. Five years ago, public speaking was ranked the number one fear ahead of dying with 75% of people expressing a fear of speaking. People say that it makes them uncomfortable, makes them vulnerable and given the choice, it’s something that most would gladly pass to someone else to handle.

And in a business setting, I’ve heard hundreds of attempts to do just that.

  • “Don’t you think I could just send this via email and let them read it for themselves?”
  • ”How about I tell the group that I’m uncomfortable and don’t enjoy talking to people?”
  • “I’m an introvert. Can you find someone who is an extrovert to do it?”
  • “I want to be sure my team gets visibility, so I’m going to ‘let’ someone else present this.”
  • “This wasn’t in my job description. I don’t think I should have to do it.”
  • “I’d rather just answer questions. Can’t they just ask questions?”

I’ve heard it all. And, I recognize most strategies to get out of the spotlight. It even seems a little humorous, but feeling uncomfortable and dealing with nerves is no laughing matter.

Most communicators experience nervous energy when they speak. I feel it. I can tell the difference in a speech morning and an individual coaching day. You get more juice in your system when you know you have to get a point across clearly. That’s adrenaline, and it’s as natural and common as the physical lift you feel during an exercise class or a long run.

But, that isn’t what some people mean when they ask us about nerves. They mean a more anxious feeling, and they experience physical responses that feel more out of control and less desirable than the adrenaline rush of a physical activity. That isn’t uncommon either, although it is something that you can work through and learn to manage effectively.

When we talk to people about feeling anxious or nervous, we describe the cause of nerves as both a mental state and a physical state. One is a cause of anxiety and the other is the manifestation of it. Here are our thoughts on how to manage through anxious feelings and nervous energy before any communication situation.

 

WHY WE FEEL NERVOUS – Mental State

While I am not qualified to diagnose anxiety, I’ve talked about nervousness enough to know that how you’re thinking drives how you’re feeling.

And when someone wants to work on nervous feelings, I begin by talking to them about what they’re thinking. Many communicators put a lot of pressure on visibility moments, and some can work themselves into thinking that speaking is more than a moment in time. Instead, it becomes a suspended amount of time that they’re not sure they can get through or cope with. When I hear the situation described as bigger than it should be, then I know that there may be some anxiety attached to it.

I encourage people to talk to a physician about it and learn more about dealing with anxiety. This may be recognizing that nervous feelings aren’t just linked to an upcoming speaking situation. One event has rolled into a series of events, associated with multiple factors and it can be a number of worries to work through.

And, sometimes the anxiety is tied to a stressful time period. I see this and hear about this more often than I used to. In our efforts to go fast, work effectively and blend all elements of our lives together, we don’t always give ourselves a release valve.

 

Case in Point: I coached a woman recently who had a big presentation. We had developed her storyline, and she felt good about the content two weeks before she delivered it. But when I followed up with her, she told me that she didn’t deliver it well and she was certain it was because she got nervous in the middle of it. I hadn’t seen much of this in our rehearsal sessions, so I asked her more about it. Through probing, I learned that she had been traveling non-stop for twelve days prior to this meeting. She had the flu the previous week and had been taking over-the-counter flu medicine for four days. She went to dinner the night before with a client and stayed out late. She admitted that she was exhausted and went home and slept for two days after the meeting. She was probably nervous, but she was also run down, exhausted and dehydrated. She didn’t connect the anxious feeling with her physical state.

 

The way we’re feeling and thinking usually shows up in our body and voice.

HOW WE FEEL NERVOUS – Physical State

Regardless of what causes nervous feelings, nerves manifest themselves in a physical response or a vocal response. And in most cases, that’s something we can either solve for or help someone understand how to deal with in the moment.

Here’s how we do it.

We observe someone’s delivery in a speaking situation, and we watch the use of the body and we listen to the quality of the voice. Nerves will show up in physical tightness and voice restrictions, and we can help someone feel and see those symptoms occurring. People carry their bodies differently and they use their voices differently. So, solving for nerves isn’t a one size fits all approach. But, here are a few concepts that may help you improve how you feel and sound.

 

The Body – Your body is the physical focal point when you speak. And a part of getting people to pay attention means getting people to focus on you. That’s hard to do and can make someone feel uncomfortable before they feel confident. When someone feels nervous, they may shift their weight, rub their arm, clasp their hands or any number of unintentional movements. This tightens the body and can make you appear rigid, withdrawn, tight and uncomfortable which most people say they are.

We solve this by helping people become more aware of the use of the body. You can learn to feel more settled and grounded on your feet. You can raise awareness of how the body moves and gets involved in communication. And, then you can learn what confidence feels like and train your body’s muscle memory to get back there easily.

 

The Voice – If the body tightens, the voice retreats. It’s harder to focus on these signs, because you can’t see it; you have to hear it instead. People pull the voice back which makes it sound thin, tight and even gruff. That’s nerves, and it’s caused by tightening in the body discussed above. Several voice exercises can help someone free the voice and project the voice. This builds a warmer tone and fuller quality to someone’s voice. And through coaching, we can help someone learn to hear the difference and work through a more tense or tight moment.

 

So, don’t give up on those visibility moments. Speaking can be a challenge, but it can also be your greatest asset as a manager and a leader. It takes a little help to understand what nervous energy really is and why it may be occurring. And, then with a little practice, the situation that you dread the most can become the skill that actually gets you ahead.

Call us when you need us.

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