Nervous or “In the Zone”?


Over the last couple of days I have seen a lot of novice speakers at a couple of events. A number of them have been evidently nervous, bless ’em. It’s always alarming to be in the audience when a speaker would clearly rather be anywhere else! It’s likely that you’ll relate to this, whether you give talks or not, as BUPA suggests that over 90% of the British public suffers with glossophobia: the fear of public speaking. For many it’s a fear that they’re going to make complete fools of themselves,after all, nobody wants their audience to think less of them. They’d rather the Grim Reaper would come and take them away  (fear of death is only the UK’s number three fear!)

On our High Impact Presentation Skills training course we ask our delegates to make a list of what happens to their body when they stand up to present and the list invariably contains (but is not always limited to) the following:

Nervous speaker


  • shake
  • sweat
  • blush
  • butterflies
  • heart pounding
  • mind goes blank
  • feel faint
  • feel sick
  • stomach churns
  • knees knock
  • time slows down
  • time speeds up
  • mouth goes dry
  • ramble
  • fidget
  • need the loo

Even seasoned performers describe some of these feelings. Ian Holm famously gave up stage acting for a while, such were his nerves. So, if most people experience nerves, why don’t most speakers appear nervous? Well, it’s because they’ve found ways of hiding the signs of nerves. In actual fact many of the signals are internal (butterflies in the stomach, a feeling of nausea) and therefore just aren’t visible anyway.

Here are some of our Top Tips for dealing with signs of nerves:

Shakes – Copy your notes on to index cards rather than using A4 sheets of paper which can magnify and indeed amplify the shaking. Grip the cards and brace your elbows against your sides. If you make just a few notes by annotating the cards with Key Words only – NOT your full script, you’ll be tempted to read it verbatim – should your mind go blank you’ll have something to refer to and get back on track.

Blushing – is more of a problem for women speakers rather than it is for the gents (your skin is thinner – that’s all.) Exposed flesh blushes (so cover up as much as you feel comfortable covering. We occasionally get a lady speaker who will say “my chest goes red and blotchy when I stand up to speak.” “Well, cover it up, then, madam.” We reply.” One way of covering up is to use a green tinted foundation. (Seriously.) There are a number of make-up solutions that can counter the red blotching associated with nerves. Boots No 17 Colour Corrective Fluid is just one.

Time slowing down or speeding up – are sensations caused by adrenaline coursing through your body. As long as you have rehearsed, rehearsed and rehearsed, you’ll know how long your talk lasts. Providing you stay on track (stops you rambling) you shouldn’t add too much to this (if you finish a little early – no one will mind!) Try to catch sight of a clock in the room or take off your wristwatch and lay it before you – for reference.

Fidgeting – remove all temptations – jewellery etc.

Mouth dries up – this is a real problem for many speakers and the most commonly used solution – having a drink of water is not at all effective! The problem is that if you start sipping water, it washes away any saliva (which is what you need to keep your mouth lubricated!) If you watch speakers who drink water you’ll notice that they have to continue doing so throughout their talk. There’s another problem – you have something to knock over! By far and away the most effective solution is to BITE THE SIDE OF YOUR TONGUE. Not so hard as to draw blood – just a little nip. Before you know it you’ll have more saliva flowing and that’s what you need.






In the Zone


Needing the loo – another reason why drinking water is not always a good idea. Go before you start. Then XYZ! EXamine Your Zip. If you go out with your flies undone (or your skirt tucked into your knickers, for that matter) the audience will be mightily distracted.

As for the other things on the list, well the audience cannot see them – no matter how peculiar they feel.

Asked whether or not he suffered from nerves, Bruce Springsteen denied that he ever did. He added that before he could perform, however, he had to be “in the zone.” Asked what that felt like, he replied, “My heart beats faster, my stomach churns and my hands shake.” Nerves can be a good thing. They are a healthy sign that you care about how you and your presentation come across.

Knowing that you have a well structured, well rehearsed talk that research tells you is what your audience wants to hear is a great confidence booster that means your nerves can be held in check.

6 Responses to “Nervous or “In the Zone”?”

  1. Tweets that mention Nervous or “In the Zone”? « New Tricks Training’s Old Dog Blog -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ken Norman, New Tricks Training. New Tricks Training said: Nervous or "In the Zone"?: […]

  2. Graham Armfield Says:

    I used to be in a band many years ago and agree that some tension is important for a good performance – but of course not too much.

    The thing that helped me then and helps me now when I speak at conferences is to realise that the vast majority of people in your audience want your performance to be good. After all, they’ve invested time in coming to the event and they may well have invested money in that too.

    Understanding this can give you a real boost and you can soak up that positive energy and bask in the warm feeling. Your performance will improve, your audience will be reassured and everyone will enjoy the experience.

    • Ken Norman Says:

      Hi Graham

      Thanks for your post. You’re absolutely right – for the most part audiences are (certainly at the outset) on your side. However, if your talk does not cover what they want to hear, then their attitude can change. I think speakers know that and that’s something that can contribute to the feeling of nerves. That’s why we believe it important to research, plan and rehearse to sort out your content. We’ve witnessed very confident speakers whose talks stink!

  3. David Burn Says:

    Another great blog, for which Many Thanks.

    But what we all really want to know is which of those symptoms are felt by the two old dogs themselves. Particularly just before the curtain went up on your West End show. Knowing that your knees were like jelly would surely give us lesser mortals a little more confidence.

    • Ken Norman Says:

      Hi David

      Yes indeed I certainly do have the feelings associated with nervousness. I recently did a course in stand-up comedy culminating in a couple of “gigs.” my knees felt like they were banging together, my mouth felt as dry as a desert and my mind went blank mid set.

      I knew nobody could see my knees, bit the side of my tongue to get the saliva flowing and having anticipated brain freeze had written some prompts in biro on the palm of my hands!

      The skill is to look confident! Going back ten years the whole experience of putting on a West End show was extremely nerve shredding (especially the TV appearances) but ultimately all the more rewarding. If you pull off a great performance the adrenaline high that you experience is absolutely wonderful.

  4. For Fear of Forgetting… what can you do if your forget your presentation? « New Tricks Training’s Old Dog Blog Says:

    […] When you stand up to speak at a seminar, conference or even at a team meeting, do you ever worry that you’re going to forget what to say? That’s not surprising – it’s a key concern that most people have and often cited as a common side effect of nerves. […]

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