My Favorite Trick for Mastering Nerves

In a 2012 study done by the National Institute of Mental Health, Glossophobia beat out Necrophobia (death-phobia) as America’s biggest fear: Public speaking.

Trying to speak to an audience, large or small, is absolutely terrifying. To most people.

It’s especially difficult when you’re moving out of your comfort zone, from one level to the next: Maybe you’ve mastered speaking in your rhetoric club, but step onto a stage in front of a crowd of hundreds and you still might freeze.

Personally, after lots and lots of practice (including psychological tricks, mantras, and “imagining my audience naked”–which really didn’t do it for me), I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with public speaking. I actually feel pretty comfortable speaking to an audience–like I’m in my element.

But there are still times and situations where the nerves will kick in. Maybe it’s a bigger group than I’m used to. Maybe a smaller group (actually scarier to me). Maybe I didn’t have time to prepare. Maybe it’s just been a stressful day. Whatever the trigger might be, the most experienced speakers can still get nervous.

So what do I do when I get nervous? I use my all-time favorite technique:

Look at the individuals in the audience!

If you have a chance, study individual attendees before you even get up to speak. Think about them–not as your audience, but as people like you. Look deep into their eyes. Feel their humanity. Realize that they are no different than you.

When you get up to speak, keep looking! Look deep into their eyes. Look at faces, look at clothes, look at their expressions, look at their thoughts–or at least imagine them. They probably think a lot like you.

Seems simple, so why is it important? Because it’s easier said than done. There’s a very natural tendency for speakers to glance around the audience without settling on individuals. It’s hard not to sense the audience as a whole–a grand mass of judgement and criticism. But your audience isn’t one giant judge, it is made up of a bunch of humans who are just like you. In fact, they’re individuals who consider you and your words worth sitting down and shutting up to listen to.

I can’t explain in a short blog post every different reason I have found that this works. And it might not work for everyone. But for me, it changes everything!

blog image 11There’s something about focusing on and connecting with individual audience members that makes the big scary audience disappear and fills your heart with the warmth of the compassionate human beings surrounding you. You’re speaking to individual people, not some strange and unknown “audience.” They have friends, families, desires, and fears. Remember–they’re just like you. They are not scary!

And the easiest way to prove that to yourself is by sizing them up.

Don’t size your audience up. It’s big and intimidating. Size each individual person up. They’re really not that scary.

So that’s my favorite trick. As I said, I can’t promise it will work for you, but you’ll never know until you try–worth a shot? What I can say is that when I’m feeling nervous in front of an audience or before a speech, nothing calms my nerves, brings me back down to earth, and puts everything in perspective like breaking the big scary audience down into individual fellow-humans. And the easiest way to do that is by looking at them.

Not facing them. Not seeing them. Not speaking towards them. Looking at them.

Just remember: The audience may be big, but each member is as small as you.

Good luck!

How do YOU cope with nerves in front of an audience (big or small)?

Author: Peter Elbridge

I am a lifelong learner and avid reader, which translates into doing smart work for myself, my team, and my clients. I have a passion for effective leadership and an even bigger passion for helping others do and feel better. I have a lot of experience in communication, public speaking, and writing. Above all, I have a deep and genuine care for every life I touch. That's why I write. (My opinions and endorsements are my own and do not represent my employer.)

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