My heart was pumping at such a pace that I was getting sharp, insistent pins and needles in my hands, arms, legs and who knows where else. I could feel a sense of panic that surely transmitted itself to my face and, from there, to everyone else in the audience. It was all I could do to finish, go back to my seat and breathe calmly once more.
That’s a feeling that many people will relate to when it comes to speaking in public. I don’t share many public speaking tips here, that’s other people’s speciality, but it is a central part of many formal networking events and an opportunity that should be grasped with both hands. But that’s hard to do when both hands are shaking furiously.
The emotions expressed above aren’t a generalisation of the feelings many people get when faced with a public speaking opportunity though. That was the visceral reaction I experienced myself at one event last week. I wasn’t delivering a big keynote, there weren’t that many people in the room and I was sharing information I knew well and in a format that I used to train people in.
For a host of reasons, my nerves really kicked in and affected me. I really felt that I blew the opportunity. But apparently I didn’t.
I asked a few people I know well, and who I know would be totally honest with me, about their perceptions of my presentation. They thought I was composed, professional, in control and, of course, wildly funny! (Well, maybe mildly humorous.) Nobody thought I was nervous. In fact one colleague told me that he upped his own game because of the standard he felt that I had set. He had no idea of my inner turmoil.
So many people assume that speaking in public, or indeed networking, is easy for people who do it regularly and that we don’t get affected by nerves in the same way that others do. Don’t believe it for a second. Nerves affect most people, even people doing something on a regular basis. The key is in accepting those nerves, knowing how to cope with them and even how to channel them to become excitement and controlled adrenaline.
For my forthcoming book ‘Just Ask!’, I interviewed singer Hattie Webb, who has worked with many of the biggest music stars of the last half-century, including Sting, Leonard Cohen and Tom Petty. Hattie shared with me how two of these music icons got extremely nervous despite years of experience and thousands of fans worldwide.
Hattie said, ‘We were going on stage in Austen, Texas. I was making tea and Leonard was making coffee and, as he was pouring his coffee, I could see his hand shaking. He looked around to me with a smile said, “I’ve been doing this for forty-five years and still…”.
‘I smiled back, knowing that we are all vulnerable. When we toured with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Charley (Hattie’s sister and fellow backing singer) and I travelled to the stage on the golf buggy with Tom and Dean, Tom’s bodyguard. One night in Vancouver, Tom turned around to us and said, “I’m so nervous”. I felt more at ease with my nerves knowing Tom had them too.
‘It’s almost as if the experience you have in your body is more daunting than the actual action of performing. Fear can have a hugely ominous presence, but what if it’s there and you’re ok? It’s a duality, it’s there and you don’t need to get rid of it.’
Almost everybody gets nervous in certain situations, even the greatest stars. If you struggle with your own fears, one of the biggest things you can do is recognise that it’s nothing unusual and, despite how you think you look, many people may not be aware at all of how nervous you are.
The opportunity is still there for you to grasp in both trembling hands.