February 8, 2022

Experienced Speakers: When Nervousness Surprises You

Public Speaking , Presentation Tips , Public Speaking Fear

When you think you've long since conquered nerves, public speaking has a way of saying, "Hold on there, you. Don't get too confident."

Buckley School coaches can tell you about moments when they were surprised by nervousness they didn't see coming.

For Karen Kalutz, it happened when she spoke to a civic organization in our hometown of Camden, South Carolina, and she realized half the members of the club were people she knew from church.

Jana Daley recalls trying to keep her Zoom presentation on track after a painting on the wall behind her crashed to the floor.

And there was the time Jenny Maxwell got on a hotel elevator with her dress turned inside out, changed it in the bathroom, then stepped up on the conference stage to see the man who was in the elevator with her sitting on the front row.

Familiar faces, unexpected twists, and people you hope to never see again are just a few of the things that can rattle even experienced speakers.

What can you do when nervousness surprises you while you're presenting?

Make a plan and trust it

If you've put a solid message together, deliver it the way you planned and see if the nerves don't start to settle. Add the gestures. Make eye contact and look for the friendly faces. It's probably going well, despite how you feel.

Then, after you deliver your first point, if you feel the message is genuinely landing with a thud, consider shortening it. Most of us have material in a speech or presentation that can be left out, if necessary.

"When I'm asked to speak toward the end of the day at a conference, I'm always marking places where I can shorten my talk," says Jenny, "either because other speakers have run long or people are weary and ready for happy hour. And I confess, those weary faces can make me feel a little nervous."

Take a breath and slow down

When nerves flutter up, many speakers tend to rush. What's helpful, though, is to do the opposite. Pause. Take a breath. Slow down.

Not only might that breath help to settle you, it will also minimize any impression that you are nervous. "Confident speakers don't rush. Only the confident speaker is comfortable with that moment of silence," says Karen.

Assume your nerves aren't apparent

When giving feedback during the school's Executive Seminar, we often tell the speaker, "You may feel nervous, but you don't look nervous." How you feel is not necessarily how you appear. Assume that's true for you.

Even if the audience notices that you were distracted for a moment, they may have no idea nervousness has come into play. So keep going. Try to shift your attention toward the message and what you're saying, not whether you look nervous as you deliver it.

"Of course, that's what we talk about all the time at the school, becoming the servant of your message," says Jana. "Remind yourself that you have something you think they need to hear and that they're probably focused on that message, too."

Learn more

Consider how changing your self talk can help you feel less nervous before you give a presentation.

Try these easy tips for settling nerves before you go on.

See how one high-profile speaker plans her talks and how audience size can be a factor when it comes to stage fright.

Share this article