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Battling Nerves

How to Stay Calm

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Nearly everyone experiences nervousness when they perform in some way, whether in giving a speech, taking a test, offering a presentation, or teaching a class. It's something everybody deals with. But some people hide their nervousness more than others. Why?

Some people simply understand that nervousness is self-perpetuating. Here is an alarming little equation:

Nervousness + Signs of nervousness = Increased Nervousness

In other words, one sign of nervousness can cause other symptoms to pop up. To clarify this cruel little formula, just think back to a time when you were speaking in front of a group. If you noticed that your hands were shaking or your voice was cracking, you probably became distracted and unnerved by these signs. They probably embarrassed you and made you even more nervous, which made your heart beat faster. True?

There's good news: This formula also works in reverse. If you can prepare ahead of time to prevent and disguise the normal causes for nervousness, you can avoid a chain reaction of symptoms.

Fears That Cause Anxiety

The best thing you can do is to over-prepare when you're facing an intimidating situation that makes you nervous. The number one cause for nerves is feeling inadequate about the topic.

Fear of Looking Stupid

Whatever your topic may be, from phases of the moon to Internet safety, you must research it thoroughly. If you try to skimp or slide by with a little knowledge, you'll start to feel insecur--and it will show. Prepare ahead and go way beyond the parameters of your specific topic. Find out all you can about the how and why of things, especially if you will be answering questions about your topic.

Fear of Forgetting Information

When giving a speech, it's normal to forget details if you're nervous, so you should take steps to avoid this. Make an outline of your topic or make several note cards to use as prompters. Practice with the note cards and re-make them if they confuse you in any way. Make sure you number any note cards so you can keep them in the right order.

Fear of Freezing Up

You can avoid the appearance of freezing up during your presentation, discussion, or speech by having props on hand. These can include a drink of water, a note pad, or a visual aid.

Any time you feel like you might go blank, say "Excuse me for a moment," and take a drink or pretend to jot something down. This will give you an extra moment to gather your thoughts.

It's also a good idea to have one note card prepared that you can go to in a moment of panic. This card could contain a space filler like an anecdotal story that goes along with your topic. If you need to go to this "panic card," you could simply say, "You know, this reminds me of a story." After you complete your story you can say, "Now where was I?" and someone will tell you.

Symptoms That Increase Anxiety

You can reduce some nervous symptoms by scoping out the room where you'll be speaking or presenting. Find out if you'll be standing still, sitting down, walking around, or using a microphone. Educate yourself as much as possible about your situation. It will give you a greater sense of control.

Dry mouth: Prevent dry mouth by carrying a glass of water with you. Also avoid drinking carbonated drinks before you speak, since those tend to dry out your mouth.

Shaky, nervous voice: The more you know your topic and the more confident you feel, the less trouble you'll have with your voice. If you start to feel short of breath or shaky, just pause to consult your notes or take a sip of water. Breath slowly and give yourself a moment to re-group. It won't look odd to the audience.

Rapid heartbeat: It's not a good idea to eat a big meal before an event. The combination of jittery nerves and a full stomach can create a strong heartbeat, which will make you feel short of breath. Instead, eat a small but healthy meal before you speak.

More Tips for Battling Nerves

  • Prepare transitional phrases ahead of time to help you flow from one idea to the next. If you don't have a good transition, you might get nervous as you struggle to change from one topic to another.
  • Practice your speech, presentation, or argument out loud and in front of the mirror several times. This will help you fix any awkward segments.
  • If you have a microphone, concentrate solely on it as you speak. This helps you block out the audience.
  • Don't think about underwear. Some people suggest that you imagine your audience wearing underwear. You can do that if you really want to, but it might not prove very helpful. The real idea behind this trick is to think of your audience as ordinary people just like you. They are ordinary, and chances are, they're all impressed at your courage and very supportive.
  • Move around the room if you have the opportunity. This sometimes helps distract you from the eyes of your audience and it can make you look professional and in control.
  • Start out your presentation with a great quote or a funny line. For instance, a good line to use as an icebreaker is "I just want you all to know that I am not picturing you in your underwear."

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