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Controlling Nerves - Tip of the Month For July 1999
By Dr. Ken Snyder   Printer Friendly Version

Key Points

Most speakers, including professional speakers, feel nervous before and at the start of a speech.

*Nervousness is normal; nervousness is good.

*Speakers can easily *control their nerves by following a few basic guidelines.

What! I have to give a speech? When a person (children and adults alike) discovers that he must give a speech, his primary concern is, "How in the world will I control my nerves?". This concern is a legitimate one. As noted earlier, speaking in public is the number one fear of most adults. Based on my experiences in the classroom, I feel
it is critical to address nervousness before you teach the techniques for preparing and constructing a speech.

What? Me Worry?

When the subject of nerves comes up, there is both good news and bad news. The bad news is that, more than likely, the speaker will be nervous. A student who feels nervous should not feel alone or different from anyone else. Feeling nervous before a speech is perfectly normal. Almost all speakers, including professionals, experience nervousness before they speak. Likewise, athletes, rock stars, actors, and other performers feel nervous before a game or performance. Even students who thoroughly prepare for an exam feel nervous as the teacher passes out the exam.

The good news is that nervousness is not only normal—it is beneficial. Nervous energy is energy. All speakers, athletes, performers, and test takers can use this energy to their advantage. When we become nervous, our bodies release a hormone called adrenaline into our bloodstream. Adrenaline causes symptoms such as a faster heartbeat, sweaty palms, a dry mouth, and "butterflies" in the stomach. Adrenaline also gives us an energy boost—it "pumps" us up and helps us achieve greater results. Most students interpret this "adrenaline rush" as their body telling them that they are not ready to give a speech. In reality, just the opposite is true. The body is telling the athlete, student, or speaker: You are ready—go for it! In regards to giving a speech, I usually tell students that the FEAR that they feel actually means Feeling Excited And Ready.

Nervousness usually occurs just before and during the first few moments of a speech. After that, most speakers start to forget about themselves and focus on their topic. At this point, a speaker will "kick in" and the nervousness subsides. This transition is often obvious to the experienced speakers in an audience.

Tips to Help Beginning Speakers Control Nerves

1. Pick a topic that interests you. If you have a passion for a topic, you will reach the "kick in" point quickly. This desire to share your passion with an audience will overcome the feeling of nervousness.

2. Pick a topic that you know well. You should avoid presenting material with which you are unfamiliar. New material combined with the discomfort of being in front of an audience can be disastrous to the beginning speaker. When you know your topic well, you have reserve energy to control nerves.

3. Use props. When you use props, you have something to show. This eliminates the discomfort of feeling that everyone is looking at you.

4. View every speech as a test run. I strongly believe that teachers should grade every speech a student gives. I also believe that teachers should factor this grade into the student's course grade. This encourages students to take their speaking assignments seriously and put forth a positive effort.

However, do not put undue pressure on the beginning speaker. I always tell students that speech class and school itself is a "laboratory":

"We are all going to work together. We are experimenting to prepare ourselves and others to lead fruitful, productive lives. There is no such thing as the perfect speech. You are expected to make mistakes. You will make mistakes. That is good. We learn from our mistakes. By evaluating each speaker's speech, we will learn from one another.

We will learn what makes a speech effective and why. Every time you speak or participate in an exercise, you will be a better, more confident speaker. The only way you can fail is—if you don't try."


Nervous energy is energy. If properly controlled, it can be used to the speaker's advantage.

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