The appearance of Sergio Dipp as a sideline reporter on Monday Night Football received a lot of coverage a couple of years ago, and most of it was harsh. The question that it raised for us at the time was how much of his struggle had to do with nerves? In our work, we know that even the most experienced talent get nervous, and sometimes the nerves can be crippling.
Even absent nervousness per se, there may be an adrenaline rush that impacts delivery. No matter how experienced you are and confident you feel, it’s important to recognize when you’re at risk of being hijacked by nerves or adrenaline and to have a strategy for dealing with it.
Recognizing the threat
What are the outward signs that someone is nervous? In general, we see shaking, trembling, shortness of breath, running out of breath, a quivering voice, a voice that breaks, a dry mouth, a monotone delivery, a fast rate of speech, body language that is small and tight, repetitive gestures, and the list goes on. What is happening? The feeling of nervousness – or even just excitement and the rush of adrenaline that mimics nervousness – results in a “fight or flight” response in the body. We tense up. We start to breathe in a high, shallow manner. Our shoulders creep up towards our ears and our heads shift forward. The jaw tightens. This response is helpful if we are in the jungle getting ready to run away from a wild animal, but in a public speaking arena, it can be catastrophic.
So what can you do about it? Here are a few strategies to help you get a handle on the nervous energy so that you can focus on the job at hand.
Take time to breathe deeply and easily
Spend time focusing on your breathing. You want to feel you stomach expand as you inhale and collapse as you exhale. Try to keep the chest and shoulders relatively still. Don’t take a huge breath, just take as much as you need. Try breathing in for five seconds and then breathing out for 5 seconds. Breathe in through your nose and out through puckered lips to help you feel the breath as it leaves the body.
Move to release physical tension
Try tightening up all of your muscles, all of them, and holding that tension for 5 seconds. Then let it go. Try rolling your shoulders back. Try shaking out your hands and arms.
Put your posture to work
If you haven’t seen Amy Cuddy’s TED talk or read her book, Presence, do yourself a favor and check them out. The Harvard researcher focuses on body language and ways you can manage it to increase your own feelings of strength and confidence.
Practice like you play
Preparation and practice are crucial. And when you practice, actually practice out loud – not just in your head. Your body will remember the practice and take over for you in times of stress. Visualization is a wonderful tool and can be used in conjunction with practice, but nothing is better than practicing physical and vocal delivery in real space and time.
Focus on your audience instead of on yourself
Instead of thinking about how you are doing, focus on the people you are wanting to reach. Who exactly are they? Why is your story important to them? What do you most need them to understand? Let your mind work on the answers to these questions instead of letting it monitor and critique your performance moment-to-moment.
Above all, remember that the goal is connection, not perfection. Viewers may admire polish, but they’re not necessarily loyal to it. The talent that dominate are instead usually those that viewers perceive as fallible and real — people like them who just love the conversation and can laugh at themselves — and learn and move on — when things go a little awry.
A great example of this? Sergio Dipp, whose TEDTalk on believing in yourself has now been viewed almost 1 million times!