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How top speakers manage nerves

Managing nerves when you’re asked to speak in public is something that you might struggle with. And you’re not alone! One of our favourite discoveries at Bespoke Communications is the Harvard commencement speech from the great American tv host, Oprah Winfrey.  In her speech, Oprah talks about the nerves that even well-known performers feel when taking part in a tv interview with her. She name checks President Obama, Beyonce and beyond.  Regardless of how famous they are or how frequently they appear on tv or in public, every interviewee she’s worked with looks for feedback after their tv appearance – ‘Was that OK?’  or ‘How did I do?’. Even at Bespoke, we don’t have to look too far to realise that’s true. Sarah has a tv career spanning two decades, and will readily admit to managing nerves before going on air.

Managing nerves

So it’s liberating to know that everyone feels nervous before appearing in public. Its not just you! Nerves come knocking to remind you that you care – that you want your words to mean something to those that hear them.   Giving a speech requires that you open yourself up, even just a little.   Your audience wants to get to know you and what makes you tick.  And when you’re being yourself, and showing empathy, then it’s natural to want the respect and approval of your audience.  Let’s face it, it’s a basic building block of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Your preparation process

The great news is that your nerves can be harnessed to help your performance rather than hinder it.    You can use the principles of performance psychology to develop a preparation process to help you when you’re called upon to present in public.  Identifying the source of your anxiety and breaking it down into skills to be mastered is the first step.  For some people, that means practicing a killer opening.  For others, it’s about structuring their content so that they get their message across more easily.  And many people just want to focus on the pace of delivery. Finding low-risk situations to help you to practice those skills is key.  Giving yourself the opportunity to practice, knowing that you’ll make mistakes is the best way to learn and improve. Your preparation process is very different to your performance process when you’re on stage with all eyes on you.

Your performance process

Your performance process will be unique to you, but here are some tried and tested techniques to help you on the day.  There’s something in here that you can adapt and make your own.  Here’s Sarah talking with Denis McNeill on Q Radio recently about the Speakeasy Club, and how to overcome public speaking nerves.  With the right tactics, you’ll master those nerves to give a great performance every time!

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Stories …. even in a business presentation

TED Speaker Amy Cuddy

Effective stories can change our opinions, they can inspire us to achieve goals that we didn’t think were possible, and they can show us how we can change things for the better. But for some people telling stories just doesn’t seem professional or technical enough. Storytelling is associated with words like ‘fiction’ or ‘fabrication’, and feels a bit personal and subjective.

But in a business presentation, stories can make the difference between success and failure. Stories help us to grasp information and retain it long after the presentation is over. Did you know that your audience is over 20 times more likely to remember a message when it’s conveyed using a story than they will remember any individual statistic used to back the story up (1)?  There is a lot that we in business can learn from the TED Talk model. Here are some greats for you to ponder:

Building trust

Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. Watch this TED Talk, where Bryan uses a full five minutes of his introduction to set the scene with an endearing and personal story. The audience gets to understand what makes Bryan tick, and why his work is so important to him.



Conveying an idea

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy, Associate Professor at Harvard Business School, investigates how people judge and influence each other. Her 2012 TED Talk was the inspiration behind her recent bestseller Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. In this TED Talk, watch how she uses stories to make the case for you to Fake it till you make it.


Emotional connection

For third sector organisations, emotional connections are so important to influence your audiences. We admire how James Nesbitt skilfully brings us to a time and a place in this keynote to the Alzheimers Research UK annual conference. He’s got a moving story to tell and it really resonates.


Do you have a favourite speaker that you’d like to share with us? Come chat on Facebook or Twitter, we’re always keen to hear about great communicators!

(1) Made to Stick (2007), Dan and Chip Heath, Arrow Books