If you’re due to make a speech at a wedding, the chances are it will be the first time you’ve ever done any public speaking. Add to that the natural fear of saying something wrong and letting yourself down, and the whole idea can fell very daunting. A little bit of coaching in voice projection and controlling those nerves can make all the difference.
The first thing to grasp is that nervousness is a perfectly natural response when you have to speak to an audience. What you are feeling is an instinctive fear which dates back before we were all properly human. Thousands of years ago when we roamed around in herds, constantly at the mercy of sabre toothed tigers and so on, we soon learned that making an exhibition of ourselves was a dangerous thing to do. We still carry that ancient defence mechanism of the fight-or-flight response: if ever we have to draw attention to ourselves the adrenaline starts flowing, our blood pressure and heart rate go up, our muscles tense in order to provide the body with extra speed and strength. All that blood rushing to your muscles from other parts of your body can make you feel weird, even faint. Another side effect is a dry mouth, which of course makes it more difficult to speak, thus increasing your anxiety.
These things will happen to you because they happen to everyone.
Expect the nerves, then accept them and don’t fight them. Nervousness is your friend: it makes you think faster, it keeps you alert and it gives you that edge you need. Think of an actor stepping out on stage in some demanding scene. He doesn’t want to be too relaxed, he just needs to look relaxed. He needs that nervous energy to power him through the part. Giving a speech is a kind of performance, so in a way you are in the same position as that actor.
So how do you learn how to use your nerves and make them your friends? Public speaking is a skill, and like all skills you can improve it with practice and experience. That’s what I help my clients to do. There are some things you can do straightaway, though. One important element of your preparation is to take a leaf out of the actor’s book and rehearse. I don’t just mean running through your script in your head, I mean saying it out loud over and over again until it becomes second nature. People who don’t like giving speaking in public tend not to rehearse like that because they find it a bit embarrassing – but believe me it works wonders.
There are some practical things you can do, too. Hydrating yourself by drinking lots of water (not alcohol) for a couple of hours before a speech will help with the dry mouth problem. Also there are some simple physical exercises that will help calm those nerves just before you ‘go on’. A good one is just to shake your hands vigorously for a few minutes, so you can ‘shake out’ your tenseness. I have no idea why that works, but it does, and it’s something you can see actors and athletes doing before a big appearance. Then of course there’s your breathing. The fight-or-flight response tends to make your breathing fast and shallow, so make sure you take some slow, long, deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth. This has a double benefit: rhythmic breathing has a calming effect and it also puts plenty of oxygen in your bloodstream to keep you alert.
So – don’t worry about being nervous, because you will be anyway. Don’t fight those nerves: make them work for you. If you are properly prepared, all will be well.
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