How to Deal with Nerves

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Nervous? Welcome to the Team.

Let’s start off with a quote here. I came across this quote recently that I thought was quite accurate. It came from Mark Twain, who actually did quite a bit of public speaking. I don’t know if you knew that, but Mark Twain said “There are two types of speakers, those that are nervous and those that are liars.”

I remember even seeing an interview with Elvis Presley, one of the greatest entertainers and performers of our time, and one of the things he said was, “I’ve never gotten over stage fright. I go through it every single show.”

And so I think sometimes we have an outside perception that speakers are supposed to never be nervous, and the professional speakers of the world never get nervous. They just go up there in total confidence and they never have the butterflies or the anxiety, and that’s not necessarily true.

I think that every speaker has some level of nerves and butterflies, and in fact, public speaking is commonly known as the biggest fear for most people. Now, I don’t know if that’s actually true or not. There’s lots of studies and a hypothetical research that floats around about that, even ahead of heights, ahead of death, ahead of flying, ahead of bugs, snakes, loneliness, all of those different things.

One of the things that ranks at the top is public speaking. In fact, the comedian Jerry Seinfeld does a bit where he talks about if you were at a funeral, the average person would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy. That’s how much we hate public speaking.

The idea of being in front of people presenting. But remember, you speak in public every single day. I don’t know why it is then that we think that getting up in front of people would be any different, because you’re always interacting and talking with people throughout the course of an average day or an average week.

In fact, the average person says 15,000 words each day. Now that’s the average person. So for you, it may be dramatically more or maybe less. But I’m guessing because you’re a speaker, it could be a lot. So let’s talk about this.

Fear of the Unknown

Why do you think people actually fear getting on stage? What is it that we’re worried about? What is it that we’re just not sure about or uncomfortable about? Well, I think part of it is that we fear the unknown. We just don’t know what’s behind the curtain. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Every audience is different, every environment is different. And you just have no idea how any given audience is going to respond.

I’ll give you an example. Each year I speak at Iowa State University, and they bring me in the summer, in August, to speak to their incoming freshman about personal finance. And so what I do actually is I go, I do the same presentation six times over the course of two days, and they basically just keep cycling groups of hundreds of new students through the room.

And so what’s always interesting to me is even though I’m doing the same talk six different times for six completely different audiences. So each session ends up being slightly different than the others. And so that means that some audiences are more engaged than others. Some are more tired than others, some are more excited than others.

It’s the same talk, same room, same presentation. But each one is slightly different. And so as a speaker it can be a little unnerving because you just never really know what you’re going to get. You don’t know how they’re going to react. You don’t know if they’re going to be engaged. You don’t know if they’re going to laugh at your jokes. You just don’t know. It’s literally like walking a tightrope over the audience, just praying that you get to the other side in one piece.

And so one of the reasons that I think sometimes we feel this fear, we feel these nerves on stage, is we fear the unknown.

Fear of Embarrassment

I think another reason is that we fear embarrassment. Like, what if I tell a joke that doesn’t work? What if they think I’m a bad speaker? What if I stutter? What if I forget what I’m supposed to say? What if something doesn’t work? What if my slides break down and we fear that embarrassment.

None of us want to be embarrassed. None of us want to be in a situation or a circumstance where we look dumb or we embarrass ourselves, make fools of ourselves. It’s so much simpler if that’s the case, and we want to avoid that to just not put ourselves in that situation or circumstance in the first place.

Fear of Not Being Accepted

Another thing I think we fear is we fear people not liking or accepting us. I think a lot of people are like this, whether we want to admit it or not, but I’ll start. My name is Grant and I’m a people pleaser. I want people to like me. I want people to like this series.

Whenever I speak, I want people to say nice things. I want people to tweet nice things. I want people to think, “Oh, that guy was a good speaker. I like that guy.” I think that’s what so many of us want. Maybe that’s why we’re all vain enough to stand up on a stage and expect people to listen to us.

But we fear people not liking or accepting us. And so every time we speak, it puts us in this situation of risk. What if I speak and they don’t like it? What if I speak and they thought it was silly. What if they thought it was corny? What if they thought it was lame? What if they just didn’t get it? What if I dropped the ball? What if I embarrass myself or they didn’t like it? So again, it’s so much simpler to not put ourselves in that situation.

Fear of the Worst-Cast Scenario

And then I think part of it is just that we fear the worst-case scenario. I’ve practiced, I’ve rehearsed, I’ve done everything I need to do, but I get up there and it’s like, we just think that the stage is going to collapse. We think that there’s going to be some major technical malfunction. We think we’re going to have some crazy wardrobe malfunction.

We keep thinking of all these different things that could go wrong, and so we start running through our mind with these worst-case scenarios as a speaker, but I want you to think about this for a second: Have you ever stopped to think that all good things come with the possibility of failure? All good things that you do, they come with the possibility of failure. Think about it. Were you nervous on that first date? Were you nervous in that big job interview?

Were you nervous when you got engaged? Were you nervous when your child was born? Yes. Because those moments matter. And so your body is reacting accordingly. So to me, if you’re nervous, it means you’re probably doing something right, because if you didn’t get nervous then you just don’t really care how it goes. It doesn’t really matter to you.

So having nerves is not necessarily a bad thing. Because I think not only does it mean that it matters, because again, if it didn’t matter, you wouldn’t care how it went, but also have you noticed that fear tends to focus our attention?

I mean all major things in life, they focus your attention. Whenever you are asking someone out for a date, when you are applying for a job you really wanted, when you were starting a business, that fear really helped you to focus in and to present your best, to put your best foot forward. So fear not only means that it matters, but it also helps you to focus that attention.

Now, having said all that, I think sometimes that excitement that we have for what we’re getting ready to do can be misinterpreted for fear. Have you noticed this? The body’s reaction to fear and excitement is basically the same. So whenever you are standing in line at an amusement park, getting ready to ride a rollercoaster – I love roller coasters.

Roller coasters are so much fun. They’re a blast. I love doing them. I’m trying to convince my daughters to do them all the time. They’re slightly more nervous about roller coasters. But I’m a fan of roller coasters – so a lot of times whenever I’m standing in line for, let’s say, this huge monster roller coaster that I’ve never ridden or experienced before, I’m not scared I’m going to die.

I’m pretty confident that if they’re going to keep shuffling people through this, that they know that this thing is going to work and it’s going to bring me back in one piece. So I’m not necessarily nervous about that or I don’t have fear about that, but I have those same butterflies in my stomach.

And so it can easily be misinterpreted for, “Oh, I’m scared. I’m worried.” No, no, I’m excited. I have that anxiousness, the anticipation of getting ready to do something. And again, the body’s reaction to both fear and excitement is the same thing.

So then it becomes this mental decision. Am I afraid? Or am I excited? And I think that’s a great question to ask yourself. Whenever you’re getting ready to go speak and you’re feeling some of those nerves or some of those butterflies, you have the choice to make here, am I afraid or am I excited? And so realize most speakers, most presenters, most performers, they still deal with nerves.

I know that personally, I do. I usually feel those butterflies for the first minute or so, and then everything settles down and I’m kind of off to the races and I’m good to go. But for that first 30 seconds, that first minute, you just don’t know. You don’t know how it’s going to go.

And so that first 30 seconds, I can always tell within that first 30 seconds how the next 30, 45, 60 minutes are going to go because if they didn’t laugh at that, they’re definitely not going to laugh at the rest of the stuff I have to say. If they didn’t start nodding their heads or if I don’t have them with me already, it’s going to be really hard to earn their trust later on.

How to Deal with the Nerves

So most performers, most speakers, most entertainers, presenters, whatever you want to call it, we still deal with nerves. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. So the bigger question then is, how do you actually control those nerves? How do you deal with those nerves? I have found for me there are three things that have really helped me to deal with those nerves. Three things that have really helped me to become a more confident speaker.

#1: Practice, Practice, Practice

Number one is practice. Practice, practice, practice. I practice a lot. I have spent hours and hours pacing my office hotel rooms, going over my talks. I want to make sure that I feel comfortable enough with my material, that I know where I’m going, but I don’t want to necessarily feel overly rehearsed to the point of it being robotic.

I want it to almost feel like a casual conversation with the audience, but that means I need to know my content and where I’m really going so that I’m really comfortable.

Think of it like this: If I were to ask you, “Tell me about when you got engaged or some other significant moment in your life,” you would probably feel pretty confident in telling that story because you lived it, it’s a part of you, you wouldn’t need your notes. But if I ask you to tell me the same story a week later, the story might be slightly different.

The gist of the story would be the same, but a few of the details might be slightly different because there’s a balance in knowing where a talk is going, but not being so robotic that you’ve got it memorized verbatim.

So here’s another way to think of this, okay? You remember back in high school or college, university, taking some type of test or pop quiz? Whenever you would walk in on a test day, you would feel one of two feelings: either one, “Wait, we’re taking a test today. Like you didn’t tell us we had a test today.”

Like you just start panicking. You start freaking out. Or you walk in feeling like, “No, no, no, I got this. Okay, give me the test. Let’s do this. Use mine as the answer key if you need to.”

You just feel that level of confidence. So one feeling is fear and the other is confidence. The difference then is how well you were prepared. Speakers who just show up, who go through the motions, are not good speakers. Speakers who spend a lot of time practicing, rehearsing, honing the material are much more confident on stage.

Today, whenever I get up to speak, if I’m doing some material that I’ve done before, I’m confident in the material because I’ve worked on it.

Not only behind the scenes where I’ve been practicing it and learning it and trying to memorize it and get it down, but also I’ve worked on it in front of live audiences. I’ve presented some of these materials, some of these stories in front of other people, so I know that what I’m getting ready to share with them works. I’ve tried it. I’ve tweaked it. I’ve made those modifications so that I know that I’m getting ready to deliver the works.

It’s the same thing, like if you’re going to a restaurant, if the chef there is going to try some new recipe. They aren’t like, “I just whipped this up. I hope people like it.” Rather, “No, no, I’ve tried this recipe. I’ve tweaked it. This is our bestseller. I know this works.” They become much, much more confident than just hopping up there and just winging something out there to the diners and hope that it is what they like. So the more you practice, the more you rehearse, the more confident and comfortable you become.

#2: Rack Up Those At-Bats

The second thing that I think really will help with this is to get at-bats. Like a lot of kids growing up, I spent several summers playing baseball. My major league dream was playing for the St. Louis Cardinals. That was my dream. I’m a huge St. Louis Cardinals fan. But once, I remember like in elementary, I got hit. I remember I got hit in the knee one time by a fast ball, and it literally left the marks of the seams from the baseball on my knee, just embedded there on my knee.

And so after that I was like, “Screw this. I’m not doing this.” But I remember several times going into the batting cage with my dad and just taking practice swing after practice swing after practice swing.

And I knew that that was really the only way that I was going to get better is not to just think about playing baseball, but to actually get in there and to take some at-bats in the same way that I could sit in my room, I could read books or articles about bat speed, about proper batting stance, about swing theory, but the best way to learn was to actually do it.

Same thing, I remember I played a ton of basketball growing up as a kid, and I would spend hours and hours and hours in my driveway and in gymnasiums, just practicing free throws, practicing free throw after free throw after free throw.

I would play mental games with myself telling myself, “If I make the next two shots, then our team wins the championship or we force overtime,” or something like that. Have you ever played that? Did you ever do those little mental tricks with yourself?

By the time I put myself in that situation or circumstance, I became more comfortable. I became more confident. I even remember, I played basketball in junior high. I remember practicing with our team and one of the things that we would do from time to time is we would take turns shooting free throws, but we would have everyone else on the team yelling, screaming, distracting us.

And so that pressure forced you to have to make the free throw or something like the entire team would have to run sprints, which just sucked. You didn’t want to be that guy. So you’re putting yourself in that situation where these at-bats, that practice, made you better when it became time to actually play in the game.

And so one of the best ways that I know to become a better speaker is to actually speak. How do you become a better speaker? You actually speak, which means that you stop reading blog posts, that you stop watching TED talks, that you stop pretending to be a speaker.

You look for any and all opportunities that you can speak. So that means you give presentations at work. That means you speak at a local rotary club or Toastmaster. Maybe you teach a Sunday school class at church, you become a guest speaker at a local school. How do you become a better speaker? Actually speak.

Now, as some of you may know, I have three little girls. And so if I was teaching one of my daughters how to ride a bike we could watch YouTube videos about riding a bike. We could read articles, we could read an instruction manual, but how do you learn to ride a bike? You get on the bike and you ride the freaking bike.

And so how do you become a more confident, better speaker? How do you deal with some of those nerves? You actually speak. And so as you speak more, you become more confident in your material, you become more confident in your presentation skills, you become more confident in handling an audience. You learn what works, what doesn’t.

You are literally getting on-the-job training which makes you better, but it also helps you to feel more comfortable, confident, and minimize some of those nerves that you may be feeling.

#3: Relax

So number one is to practice. Number two is to get some at-bats. Number three is to relax.

Just relax, just chill out because, again, we’ve already kind of established that it can be really nerve-wracking standing on a stage in front of a live audience just hoping that they don’t eat you alive. But let’s turn the tables for a second, all right?

Put yourself in the position of the audience. You’ve been out there listening to a speaker before, and so as an audience member, what do you prefer to listen to? A crappy speaker or an engaging speaker?

Like, do you want to see a speaker fumble their way through a talk, make a fool of themselves, or would you prefer that they’d come prepared and not waste your time? And so here’s the lesson.

Here’s the thing I want you to understand: the audience is on your side. They want you to do well. They really don’t want you to suck because they don’t want to have to sit through it. And so, as speakers, sometimes we have this mental “us vs. them” mentality.

Like the audience hates you. No, they don’t. Internally, they want nothing more than for you to do good. They are on your side. Just take a deep breath, stop assuming they’re against you. Stop assuming it’s this “us vs. them” mentality there because it’s not.

Speakers who are natural and comfortable with themselves, with their material, they cause the audience to feel the same way. The audience will mimic the emotions and the feelings that you have. So if you get up there and you are nervous . . .

Have you ever watched a speaker that was really uncomfortable and it just showed through. They were really nervous. They were fidgety. They were anxious. It causes you to feel uncomfortable. It’s just painful to sit through that.

But whenever you are watching a speaker that’s excited, that’s fun, that’s confident, how does that make you feel? It makes you feel excited. It makes you have fun. It makes you feel more confident. So the audience matches and mimics the emotions that you are showing from the stage.

So if you are having fun, if you are confident, then the audience has more fun, the audience becomes more confident, they put more trust in you because they feel like, “Okay, this person knows what they’re doing.” Even if that means a little bit that you’re faking it, even if that means you still have some nerves, if you exude that confidence, then that’s what the audience will feel as well.

As a speaker, realize you’re always going to have some nerves. I’m pretty confident whenever I walk out on stage, but I still have some of those nerves. And to be honest with you, I kind of hope that feeling doesn’t go away because again, whenever I get up and speak and I feel those nerves, when I feel those butterflies, It means that it matters. It means that I’m excited. It means that I have the opportunity to get up and impact people, and you have that same opportunity.

So when your body is reacting in that same way, you kind of have that same fight or flight choice. Is my body reacting out of this because I’m nervous, because I haven’t prepared, because I haven’t done the work, because I haven’t rehearsed, because I haven’t invested the time, because I’m getting up here and just winging it? Or is my body excited because I have the opportunity to speak, I have the opportunity to encourage, to motivate, to inspire, to help people in some way?

And so how do you become more confident? One, you practice, you practice a lot, be super, super comfortable and confident with your material and where you’re going.

Number two is that you get at-bats, that you take advantage of every opportunity that you have to speak. The reason that I feel comfortable and calm in a variety of different situations and settings and environments is because I’ve been in hundreds of situations and circumstances and settings.

And so when I walk into it, I remember, in this situation this happened and this is how we handled it and that didn’t work, so I need to do it differently next time. And so you learn that on-the-job training by actually speaking.

And then again, number three, it’s just relaxing – the audience doesn’t want you to suck. They prefer you to be awesome, so do that. Why don’t you just go out there and be awesome instead of just being so deep in your own head that you miss out on the moment with the audience?

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