Because “imagine everyone's naked” is terrible advice

Dealing with Nervousness

I don’t know of anyone who does a lot of public speaking and doesn’t still get nervous every time.

I talked about this to someone whose talks I greatly admire. He has a certain confidence and ease onstage and in person that makes it hard to believe he has a hard time with nervousness. I asked him about it and he admitted he can’t eat anything before he gives his talk. Even if he has a closing keynote at 5pm, then 6pm will be the first food he eats that day. Everyone is nervous.

Dealing with nerves

Nervousness impacts people differently. Whenever I’d play a solo during high school jazz band, I’d sometimes start yawning. That’s just how I coped: I get very sleepy physically, probably as some defense to hide behind an external barrier of nonchalance (meanwhile inside my head I was losing it). I didn’t even realize it at first: my director noticed during rehearsal once and said “look at him, he’s yawning!” which, if you’re an aspiring high school jazz band director take note, is a horrible thing to say to someone who is already very nervous and now has to worry about not yawning of all things, sheesh.

Nerves are a good thing, though, and if there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that they do help you out. Many times they serve to put you on edge. My brain tends to work much more quickly — and better — when I’m nervous and on stage (admittedly I think it takes some experience before nerves turn into an advantage like that). Realizing that nervousness is a feeling designed to help you rather than hurt you is a great first step. If you weren’t nervous, it means that you don’t care about what’s about to happen. If you don’t care, then get off the fucking stage.

Practice is the number one remedy, of course. Rehearsing is the practice of reducing the amount of unknown in your life. You become more accustomed with what you have to say, you expand your context around just the lines you planned to say verbatim. You become more confident with ad libbing.

Exponential decay

You know how I said everyone gets nervous? That’s true… to an extent. I’ve given a lot of talks over the last few years, and while the nervousness doesn’t ever go away, the duration of the nervousness does.

For the first few talks I gave, I was nervous from the first slide all the way to the last slide. Every step was stressful. But as I gave more talks I realized that it quickly started to halve. I’d make it halfway through before I’d get a bit more confident. Then a quarter of the way. Now it’s to the point where I really only face the major portions of nervousness during the first few minutes of a talk. I’m not sure it’s ever going to get better than that (and I still haven’t figured out a way to reduce the nerves in the hours and days during the lead-up to the talk), but realizing that I was getting better at it was a pretty huge comfort. As with everything, if you do it enough times you just become more comfortable with it.

There are ways you can cheat this process along, too. At my company we encourage people to give run-throughs of their talks before they actually have to do it. This is designed to be as realistic as possible, complete with projector and podium and butts in seats. If you mess up, your coworkers will be nice about it and will give you feedback at the end. Just getting you up on stage in front of people — any people, even if they are your friends — is going to help cheat the process along. You get a little bit more comfortable with every step you take.