Why You Should be Nervous Before Giving a Speech (and How to Use it to Your Advantage)

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Does the thought of giving a speech make you feel a little queasy? Do your hands still get sweaty? Does your heart start pounding before you go on stage? Does your brain play a sizzle reel of all the things that could possibly go wrong (everyone hates it, people boo, you fall off the stage, get pelted with rotten tomatoes, etc.) beforehand? Here’s a secret: me too. And I’ve been doing this a long time.

Though the old belief that people fear public speaking more than death has been hotly debated, it doesn’t mean that people don’t get scared before giving a speech. In fact, no matter your level of public speaking experience, there’s a good chance you still get nervous before going on stage. I get lots of people reaching out to me about how to calm their nerves before giving a presentation, but the truth is, I’ve never found a good solution. We’re talking about trying to overcome thousands of years of evolutionary brain wiring that’s sending us signals about fight or flight – which is no small task.

Do you feel like you’re about to scale a cliff before you go on stage to give a speech? Well, that’s normal. The best solution is to do what rock climbers do: channel that fear into preparation and practice!

Do you feel like you’re about to scale a cliff before you go on stage to give a speech? Well, that’s normal. The best solution is to do what rock climbers do: channel that fear into preparation and practice!

Then a few weeks ago I was listening to a podcast where the comedian Mike Birbiglia interviewed actor Nick Kroll, and they started discussing being nervous before going on stage and how you could reframe it. Kroll said that his therapist told him to acknowledge the fear, and lean into it. “Tell yourself that’s it’s okay to be afraid, because you care. And you want to do well, which is important.” By acknowledging your fear you’re taking control of how you feel about the situation, and from there you can reframe it to your advantage.

Reframing your fear is the first step not towards eliminating it, but channeling it into something productive.

Consider the difference between these two thoughts:

“I’m nervous because I’m afraid I’ll mess up and people will judge me.”

OR

“I’m nervous because I want to do well so the audience will get something of value from my speech.”  

 Let’s try another one:

“I’m nervous because if I forget my speech, people will think I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

OR

“I’m nervous because it’s important to me to recall the valuable points I need to make, so the audience understands the core purpose of my speech.”

Reframing your nervousness by making it about what the audience is getting, instead of about yourself looking bad, changes the way you think about being on stage. The focus is now about making sure you’re delivering something of value, instead of focusing on making a mistake. I’m a firm believer that we get what we focus on, so this is a great strategy to take your nervousness and use it for something good.

Consider this: if you now know that your fear stems from wanting to making sure that you’re giving the audience something valuable, will that change how you prepare for the speech in the first place? Will you give more thought to your writing process? Will you add a few extra practice sessions? Will you ask for help from a coach or mentor to make sure you’re on the right path? Will you do everything in your power to make sure you’re giving the best speech possible?

Being nervous or afraid to speak in public is normal and natural. Therefore, trying to fight it isn’t productive; instead, channel it into what you focus on before you get on stage, and let that new focus impact how you prepare for your speech.