Here's a conundrum I get asked about often. People say to me, "I used to be a confident speaker. Talking to a group of people was no problem for a long time. But recently, I don't know why, when I think about making a speech, or sometimes right in the middle when my talk has been going fine, suddenly I get butterflies, my head starts to spin, I worry that I'm going to make a mistake or forget something important, and, boom, there goes my confidence. Why does that happen? And what can I do about it?"
You're not alone. Even if you've been speaking for a long time, now and then you might experience the fidgety, fluttery nervousness inside that makes us suddenly self-conscious and unsure of ourselves and worried that our speech is going to be a big fiasco. There are dozens of reasons why this might happen. Let's look at a few of them.
This is a new speech that you've written for this particular occasion. You're not 100% sure of what you intend to say, even though you might have given a similar talk in the past. Worry that you'll forget something gives you butterflies and a sinking feeling in your stomach.
This speech is extremely important to your status within your company. The audience will be filled with colleagues and prospective clients; you're sure they're going to be judging your performance. Worry about living up to their expectations makes you feel weak in the knees, sick to your stomach, and terrified of making a fool of yourself.
This is the first speech you've given in a long time, maybe since high school or college. You remember tripping over your words, feeling nervous and stupid, and seeing your listeners yawning behind their hands, rolling their eyes, totally uninterested. Worry that history will repeat itself, that what you're planning to say won't be compelling or persuasive enough to engage the audience makes you feel incompetent and a failure before you even start.
What do these have in common? In each case, you're not thinking about the subject of your talk; rather you're thinking about how you're performing it. In other words, you're not thinking about what you're saying, you're thinking about how you're saying it.
When you focus on how you're doing, you're thinking inward, about yourself. Am I doing it right? Am I forgetting anything? Does the audience seem interested? Are they paying attention to me or looking at their cellphones? Is my voice loud enough? Are they judging me? Do they think I'm doing a terrible job? When you're thinking about yourself, you're thinking inward. That's prime time for the butterflies.
When you focus on what you're saying, however, you're thinking outward, about the audience. That's your job when you speak, to focus on them and make sure they get your message. You have a gift to give. That gift is your knowledge and enthusiasm. When you focus outward on giving them your message, there's no time to think about how you're giving it. Our brains can't hold two thoughts simultaneously. We think sequentially, one thought after another.
Our job is to think about giving them our message, making our message 'land'. We can't at the same time be thinking about whether or not we're doing it 'right'.
If we've rehearsed the speech properly, we're sure of all the key points and the order in which we want to give them. We can carry the key bullet points of our talk to the stage with us, if we like, in the form of an outline, index cards, or power point slides if the occasion calls for them.
Remember, it's not about us. It's all about them! When we've rehearsed properly and we remember to focus outward on the audience, we'll be so busy doing our job, giving them the gift of our knowledge and enthusiasm, that
it will never occur to us to think about how we're doing it. Those butterflies will lie quietly dormant because there won't be any reason for them to remind us that they're there at all.