Both men and women are affected in the same way; gender makes no difference, despite traditional assumptions that women may be more empathetic than men.
If stress is contagious and we leak our emotions, then speakers need to concern themselves with their emotional states before and during their speeches. A stressed-out speaker will induce stress in the audience. Imagine what that does for communication. When we’re stressed, we don’t attend as well, we don’t concentrate as well, and we don’t remember as well.
So you need to get your stress levels under control as a speaker, not just for you, but for your audience.
But what about the typical speaker’s nerves – that inevitable state of adrenaline-induced jitters? What can a speaker do about those?
1. Redefine the jitters as (positive) excitement and convey that positive energy to the audience (the Tony Robbins method)
2. Work on creating an alternative emotional state (the method actor method)
3. Calm yourself down (the Zen method)
I’ve worked on all three over the years with many clients. Combinations of 1 and 2 are of course possible. The first approach is the easiest to take, for most people. The second is harder and takes longer to become proficient in; the third is perhaps the most appealing and, surprisingly, the least effective. Let’s look at them in a little more detail.
Redefine the jitters. If you can convert your pounding pulse from a scary feeling to a positive one by telling yourself I’m excited! I’m going to do a great job! I’m full of energy! and so on, then you should do so. Those feeling of excitement will give you the energy you need to project the slightly-bigger-than-life persona you need on a big stage. That kind of energy reaches the back of the room, to what John Lennon used to call “the cheap seats.”
Part of the work involved is to silence that little voice in your head that completes the doom loop begun by your racing heart, the one that says, Oh-oh; this is going to be bad….The last time you felt like this was that time you wrecked the car….This is going to be a wreck too….You need to replace that voice with the positive one that talks about how the feeling reminds you of the time you won at blackjack or went skydiving or proposed marriage, or something equally exciting.
Create an alternative emotional state. A slightly more sophisticated response to the problem of speaker’s nerves is to create an alternative emotional state in your mind, one that relates to the opening of your speech. If you are telling a touching story, then use a method actor’s technique, remember a time when you felt emotional in that way, using all five senses, and get yourself into that state. If you are all fired up with anger at some injustice then work that up. And so on. The mental exercise required to recall and install the emotion has the added benefit (if you do it thoroughly enough) of making you forget your nerves as you work yourself into the new state.
This is the best method because it means your message, your audience, and you all meet emotionally, creating the conditions for a most memorable speech. But it is the most difficult method for many people to pull off. It takes time and imaginative work.
Calm yourself down. There are a number of techniques, from deep breathing, to various forms of meditation, which will enable you to maintain calm in the face of pressure.
And who doesn’t want to show up in front of the audience with all the sang froid of a James Bond? It’s appealing, at least in the abstract, to think that you could be the speaker who faces that audience of 1500 with a normal pulse, a relaxed manner, and an easy smile on your face.
But don’t be deceived. Your goal should not be to have a normal pulse. The advantage of being in adrenaline mode is that your racing heart and zippy mental state, if not completely out of control, will enable you to think and move a little faster than the audience. You’ll be able to think on your feet better, and that’s a good thing, by and large. You can handle sudden issues that come up – such as flying shoes – with aplomb, and answer questions that the audience has with impressive mental dexterity.
So a little adrenaline is a good thing. Calm is overrated in front of an audience. But stressing out the audience is not the goal. When you’re getting ready to speak, prepare your emotional state, and leak good, relevant emotions to the crowd.
A part of this post is adapted from my new book, Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact, published May 13, 2014 by Harvard. You can order it here.