Controlling our nerves and anxieties before we speak can be one of the most challenging practices for speakers. While my nerves have settled over time, they still flare up occasionally. If the setting is different, if there’s someone I esteem in the audience, or if I haven’t had enough time to prepare, I can find myself overwhelmed by nerves. At one event, I felt fine on the stage in front of 400+ women, but I fell apart when I had to read introductions at the beginning of breakouts. Go figure!
Nerves can hit at the strangest times, but with a few tips, we can learn to manage them. I want to share one lesson that has been life-changing in learning to banish my pre-session anxieties.
Late one night, I got an email from my friend Renee. “Are you still up? Call me!” Renee and her family had just gotten the exciting news that it was time to get their daughter they were adopting from overseas. Renee asked if I could cover one of her events in California, and I happily answered yes.
In the weeks before the event, I planned with an encouraging coordinator, prepared my messages, and packed for California with excitement. Because of the coast-to-coast time change, Renee had warned me, “Friday night is especially hard for a speaker when your body is screaming to go to bed about the time that you stand to speak.”
I felt the typical flutters as I was being introduced that night, but I breathed deeply through them as I stood to speak. I can’t really tell you what happened after that. Although I wasn’t nervous, I felt flat and tired. I’m big into reading faces while speaking (not always a good idea as you’ll see), so I scanned the crowd for engaged, smiling faces without finding a single one. My funny stories only got patters of laughter, and I felt disconnected and unfocused.
I walked back to my room alone and in a panic. Overwhelming fear flooded me, and I was sure that I was failing. I had failed the women at the event. I had failed Renee. I was failing God in my weekend assignment. These beliefs permeated my head and heart.
After a night of tossing and turning, I dragged my tired body out of bed to pray at dawn beside the camp pond. I was overcome with discouragement and the heavy weight of responsibility. How could I spend the rest of the weekend with these women? I had blown the first impression, and I cried out to God to redeem the retreat. I repeated my anxious thoughts over and over in my prayer.
In the silence of the morning with the rosy dawn painting the surface of the pond, my heart settled and rested. God gave me something I could do, so I began to pray. I praised God for who He is. I thanked Him for the many good things He was doing. I asked Him to pour His love for the women at the event into my heart. Finally, I asked God to speak through me for the rest of the weekend, not for my sake, but for the women there.
The breakfast bell rang, and as I walked into the bright cafeteria, women began to approach me. One after another wanted to share what God had spoken to them through me the night before. I couldn’t believe it! I’m still not sure what changed or why I thought I had done so miserably. Maybe the women had been as tired as I was. Maybe it was just a less demonstrative group. To this day, I really don’t know.
What I do know is that God used the situation to teach me the best tip yet about managing my nerves. I take now two simple (but not always easy) steps:
- Focus on Him.
- Love my audience.
Molding my mind to focus on those two priorities takes my eyes off my own performance and settles my heart and nerves.
If you struggle with your nerves before you speak, I promise it gets easier with time and practice. But you can expedite the process by changing your thoughts before you speak. Instead of rehearsing your speech again or obsessively thinking, I’m so nervous! I’m SO nervous!, give God praise while looking at the precious faces around the room. You’ll feel your heart overflow and your nerves subside!
Note: Amy Carroll and Melanie Chitwood are doing a blog series for speakers about overcoming your fears and nerves over at Next Step Coaching Services. Pop over and subscribe to receive the whole series!
Amy Carroll is a speaker and writer for Proverbs 31 Ministries. She’s author of Breaking Up with Perfect and speaker coach at Next Step Coaching Services. You can always find her trying to figure out one more alternative to cooking dinner.