All I had to do was dance; why did I feel like throwing up?
My little 7-year-old self marched through the parking lot, red tights and Christmas sweater catching snowflakes. “Dad, I’m so nervous!”
“Know what you do?” he asked, marching alongside me.
“Picture everyone in the audience as if they’re in long john underwear. Then you’ll laugh instead of get nervous.”
It didn’t work. I’m sure no one even saw me since I was in the back row of a 30-person dance troupe performing in the middle of a mall (so random), but I was petrified.
I’ve heard it said that people are more afraid of public speaking than of dying.
That night, I understood.
Fast forward twenty years, and public speaking is my livelihood. For months out of the year I’m traveling cross-country speaking at churches, high schools, colleges, and treatment centers.
And I love it.
That’s not to say I don’t get nervous. Those twenty minutes before going up on stage my body gets nervous, even if my mind doesn’t. I feel that familiar twisting in my stomach and urge to run to the bathroom, but once I step on stage, pure bliss takes over. There’s this feeling of effortless flow, the most incredible high in playing off the audience.
Okay, okay, there are times that aren’t so good. Times when it feels like running uphill rather than effortlessly flying. Times when I trip over my words and make no sense. But overall, it’s fun. I love it. Why?
#1: Be over-prepared.
Research + practice = calm. At least sort of.
When I don’t know exactly how I’m going to start, when I haven’t thoroughly practiced how I want to say what I want to say, and when I don’t have my outline memorized, that’s when I get nervous.
The more I know my stuff, the more research I’ve done, and the more practice I’ve had, the less nervous I feel.
#2: Practice in a mirror. Or videotape yourself.
I make the weirdest faces known to mankind. I seriously don’t know what’s up with my facial muscles, but they are programmed to look ridiculous.
I also pace like a caged tiger — but at world record speeds. It’s like time has frozen when I’m on stage, but my brain is going twice as fast. So what feels like slow, easy walking across the stage every few minutes looks in reality like a frenzied girl outrunning a crocodile.
#3: Know your first lines.
I always want to tailor my first lines for that specific audience, to get a connection going. That’s the most important thing. Not only does it connect with the audience, but it also sets the stage (no pun intended) for the rest of the evening. Those first few moments are crucial, so I want to know exactly what I’m going to say.
#4: Chant: “It’s not the end of the world.”
I get nervous when I think something is a huge deal — when thoughts flit through my mind like, “Your life will be ruined if this doesn’t go well.” When I start to get nervous I pause and ask myself, “Will the world end if this doesn’t go well? Will your life be forever ruined?” I have to honestly answer “no,” and that calms me down.
Strangely enough, sometimes my mistakes touch people even more than the really strong parts of the message.
At one event I tried to say “God doesn’t love us because we’re good enough, but because we’re His daughters.” Instead I said, “He doesn’t love us cause we’re His daughters, but because we’re good enough.” I immediately realized my faux pas and burst into laughter along with all the women in the room. Afterwards a group of ladies came up and said:
“Everything you shared tonight was great, but what touched us more than anything was when you made a mistake and were able to laugh about it. That’s what we most needed to see.”
#5: Think of it as therapy.
Weird, I know, but public speaking is one of the only times in life that people have come to hear you talk about yourself. Most times I assume people don’t care to hear me talk (though you’d never know it from the volume of my words) but when I’m speaking, they’ve come to hear my story. This is your chance to shine. Just like interviewing, think of it as a therapy session. Enjoy it!
These are the things that have helped me enjoy public speaking.
Now dancing in a mall like my 7-year-old self? Well, can’t help you there. I’d be nervous for that too; I can’t dance!