Oral communication: managing nerves

Nervousness is probably the biggest problem that most inexperienced speakers face. Actually, it’s good to feel nervous, as this provides the adrenalin rush we need to give a good performance. However, excessive nerves can have the opposite effect and no-one enjoys the physical or emotional symptoms of fear. So how can nerves be managed?

  • Practice, practice, practice. Rehearse in front of the mirror, or with friends. Feeling prepared goes a long way to alleviating your nerves.
  • Name your fears. Write down exactly what it is you’re afraid of, then you can devise strategies to cope.
  • What is the worst case scenario? Even if the talk fails miserably, you will not die. Thinking of the worst case scenario often puts the situation back in perspective.
  • Relaxation techniques. Regular deep breathing gives your body the oxygen it needs to burn off excess adrenalin, thus calming you down. A walk should have the same effect.

‘If you are over-nervous, it does not mean you cannot be a successful speaker, it merely means you have more work to do.’

Turk, C. (1985) Effective speaking: communicating in speech. London, Spon. p.112

Activity: Think of some ways that you personally could alleviate your fears about making presentations. What techniques could you use to help yourself relax more? Make a note of them.

When the day finally arrives and it is your turn to present, don’t be in a rush to start and ‘get it over and done with’. Take your time. Ensure your notes are in order, your visual aids in place and that the environment is as you want it. This will give you confidence during the presentation. Give some thought to:

  • your audience
  • the time
  • your voice
  • your body

Your audience

Remember that the audience are a group of real people, who are on your side (not the enemy), and with a genuine interest in what you have to say. This will help you communicate with them effectively. It also helps alleviate nerves.

‘If I were asked which was the main advice I would give a novice speaker, I would choose these three:

  • Trust and like the audience, do not fear and confront them;
  • Look at them;
  • Smile.

The second and third of these are, of course, the ways in which the first is expressed.”

Turk, C. (1985) Effective speaking: communicating in speech. London, Spon. p.39

The time

It is important that you keep to time, especially in an academic setting where marks may be deducted if you talk for longer than allocated. Make yourself a note before you start as to the time you need to finish by, keep an eye on the clock and if you run out of time, stop. Audiences welcome talks that finish on time, or earlier.

Be aware: if you are asked to make a 10 minute presentation, and talk only for 5 minutes, this could be penalised as much as if you overrun and speak for 20 minutes. Presentations for interviews and assessments are usually opportunities for employers and assessors to find out if you pay attention to instruction and detail.

Your voice

There are estimates that the words we use count for only 7% of the message we communicate. The remaining 93% comes from the tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures and so on. When thinking about our voices we need to ensure they are:

  • Audible: some rooms have better acoustics than others, but nerves can cause our volume to decrease. Keep your head up and speak slowly and clearly, aiming at the person at the back of the room.
  • Interesting: concentration spans are short so retain interest by varying the tone of your voice. Asking a question naturally causes this to happen.
  • Appropriately paced: research has shown that we don’t speak more quickly during presentations, but the number of natural pauses in our speech decreases. It may feel artificial, but insert enough pauses in your talk to allow the audience to absorb all the information. One trick is to add a couple of extra seconds of silence as you change slides.

Your body

Non-verbal communication speaks as much as our words and voices. When speaking remember:

  • Eye contact: keep in contact with your audience, look at them and try to make eye contact. If the group is spread out make sure you look around the room to involve them all. If you are too nervous to make eye contact, try focusing on people’s foreheads – this gives the impression you’re making eye contact.
  • Don’t fidget: it is hard to listen to the content of a talk if the speaker is pacing up and down or fiddling with their glasses. If you wear jewellery that makes a noise when you move, take it off. Similarly if you have anything in your pockets that could make a noise when you move, such as loose change, take it out. (and don’t forget to pick it all up again at the end of the presentation)

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