Brian McCarthy

How to deal with the physiological effects of nervousness before a presentation, interview or negotiation

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Once again this week I saw someone refer to the “fact” that public speaking is people’s number one fear, even greater then sickness, death and loneliness. The source for this factoid is The Book of Lists by David Wallechinksy et al., published in 1977. The full list is:

  1. Speaking before a group
  2. Heights Insects and bugs
  3. Financial problems
  4. Deep water
  5. Sickness
  6. Death
  7. Flying
  8. Loneliness
  9. Dogs
  10. Driving/Riding in a car
  11. Darkness
  12. Elevators
  13. Escalators

As Scott Berkun says is his book “Confessions of a Public Speaker” (the best book I’ve ever read on public speaking, along with “The Art of Speeches and Presentations” by Philip Collins): “If you combined this list to create the scariest thing possible, it would be to give a presentation in an airplane at 35,000 feet, near a spider web, while doing your taxes, sitting in the deep end of a pool inside the airplane, feeling ill, with the lights out, next to a rabid dog, near an escalator that leads to an elevator.”

Berkun goes on to explain that it seems highly improbable that public speaking comes first given what comes next in the list, and also casts doubt on how the list was compiled.

However, taking all that into account still isn’t making you feel any less anxious if you have come to this article hoping to find out some tips for managing your nerves, has it? So, in this post I’m going to offer some proven and scientific advice on getting those fluttering butterflies in your stomach to fly in formation.

I’ll look at the various physiological responses of the body to fear and then look at what we can do to counteract each one (my next article will be about the dealing with the psychological effects of fear).

The first response of your body is, naturally, to run away. It wants to be anywhere else except in this stressful situation, in front of a group of people it sees as dangerous and threatening. So, your heart starts pumping blood to your legs to get ready to run away as fast as possible. This drains blood from places you will be using to give your talk, such as your brain! You could say that fear makes people stupider because of this lack of blood flow to the brain! Furthermore, this makes your legs twitch and dance about, which is what I see a lot of nervous presenters doing. The solution is to plant both your feet firmly in the ground when you’re speaking. To help you do this, before your talk, in the bathroom, jump up and down as though you are trying to break the floor. This will make you more conscious of your contact with the floor. (I’ve written before about what to do in the bathroom before your presentation). Finally, do some rigours exercise before presenting (such as jumping jacks or press-ups) to get the blood flowing throughout your entire body and not just to your legs.

The next response of your body is to stop making saliva, as it is preparing to run and doesn’t want to choke as you are running away as fast as your blood-filled legs can carry you. This causes you to have a dry mouth and leads to coughing and lip smacking. A famous example of this was [Marco Rubio’s speech] a few years ago. The solution to dry mouth isn’t, as you might suppose, to drink water. The reason your mouth is dry is that your saliva glands have stopped working, not because you are thirsty. To reactivate your saliva glands before your presentation, sip a citric drink or suck on a lemon sweet. Another way to reactivate these glands is to gently bite on the back of your tongue. And have a bottle of water close by on stage during your talk.

The third reaction of your body is to move your eyes rapidly in every direction to see if anything is going to jump up and attack you. This is very useful when you are hunting (or being hunted) in the jungle, but is the very last thing you want to be doing during a negotiation or interview. Remember, eye contact with your audience is one of the most important aspects of body language if you want people to trust and believe you. Also, people who make strong eye contact have been shown to breathe more deeply, finish their sentences and move their head less. Unfortunately, if you have problems making eye contact there is no quick fix. You need to practice and practice. As I’ve written before, [get some teddy bears] and practice making eye contact with them while practicing your talk. Tell your colleagues that you want to improve your eye contact and ask them for feedback on this point every time you speak. Try delivering one sentence to one person, looking them in the eyes, before moving on to look at the next person.

The next physiological reaction to fear is to pump adrenaline into your system and breathe more rapidly. For this reason, don’t drink coffee before your big negotiation, even if its first thing in the morning and you haven’t slept well. Adding coffee to adrenaline is a recipe for having a jittery and manic negotiator who speaks too fast and whose hands never stop moving. Regarding breathing, do some simple breathing exercises before your enter the room. These can be as simple as breathing in deeply, holding the breath for 5 seconds, exhaling all the air and waiting 5 seconds before breathing in again. One tip, some studies have shown that when we’re nervous, its better to breathe deeply into the chest area and not the stomach. The reason is that when we’re nervous there is a massive increase of electrical activity around the heart, and breathing deeply into this air helps to dissipate this energy and help you relax.

There are many other techniques and hacks to overcome the physical symptoms of nervousness, and each of us has our own habits and strategies. Moving your feet, your eyes, breathing too fast and having a dry mouth are the big ones, and hopefully this article has provided you some with some techniques to try in the future. Please share any other tips in the comments section. My next article will be about overcoming the psychological effects of fear, such as going blank in the middle of your talk or thinking that your audience is dying to see you make an ass of yourself.