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Why People Get Nervous and What to Do About It

By Matthew Arnold Stern

This article is based on an impromptu speech that I gave at Best Software Toastmasters in June 2005. As for my daughter’s reluctance at speaking: She took a speech class in college and aced her final speech.

My daughter is graduating from sixth grade this month. Her school is having a contest to find speakers for their promotion ceremony. One of the hazards children face when they have a Toastmaster for a parent is they get plenty of encouragement (well, prodding) to speak whenever there is an opportunity. But my daughter responded, “Dad! I don’t want to get in front of all those people and speak!”

Looking at her nervousness made me think of all the people at Toastmasters who made their first jittery, unwilling steps towards the lectern. Why are people so afraid to speak in public? I thought of three main fears people have of public speaking and some ways to address them.

The Fear of Being Vulnerable

I can see why people are afraid of speaking in front of a group. You’re up there alone. All of those eyes are fixed on you. Their ears are tuned to every word you say. You feel vulnerable. Naked. No place to hide. It’s a primal fear, like we’re back on the savanna standing alone, surrounded by saber-tooth tigers.

But when you are invited to speak in public, you are not surrounded by saber-tooth tigers, lions, or any other fearsome beasts. You are surrounded by people who want to hear you. They asked you to speak because they believe you have something of value to say. They invested time in listening to you because they believe it will be well spent. Even an audience that opposes your point of view sees value in listening to you. Many of them may listen only to reinforce their already fixed opinions, but they still want to hear what you have to say.

So when you stand in front of an audience, you’re not standing in front of enemies. You are standing in front of friends, people who want you to succeed in speaking and value the information you are sharing with them. The audience admires you for having the gumption to do what most of them are afraid to do themselves. So when you stand in front of people who value and support you, you’re not really alone. You’re with people who appreciate you enough to listen. An audience really is a safe place to open up and express yourself.

The Fear of Looking Foolish

But along with this opportunity to express yourself comes lots of other fears. What if I screw up? What if I make a mistake? What if they don’t like what I say? What if I look foolish?

All speakers – even history’s greatest orators – have made mistakes. It has happened to me too. One time, when I gave a speech at a contest, I completely lost my place. I had practiced the speech for weeks, structured it so I can easily memorize it, and yet, my brain completely stalled. I was able to get back on track, but it did cost me the contest.

But sometimes, making mistakes can work to your favor. Yogi Berra, Norm Crosby, and yes, President George W. Bush have made themselves famous from their malapropisms and mispronounced words. Their verbal miscues actually enhance their speaking and add humor and interest to it. You wind up listening to them more attentively than if they spoke flawlessly.

It’s OK to lose your place, make too many ahs, or make a mistake. More often, the audience won’t notice. And if they do notice, they will probably sympathize and forgive. The occasional unintentional flaw may even make you seem more human and approachable to an audience.

What if you think your ideas are foolish? There may be people who think that way, but there may be others who may have the same thoughts you do, but they were too afraid to express those thoughts themselves. By expressing yourself, you can give voice to others. You will find friends and build community. You will find that you are not as foolish – or alone – as you think.

The Fear of Standing Out

For a number of people though, the fear of success is even greater than the fear of failure. Failure brings some comfort. When you expect nothing, you don’t get disappointed. But success brings change. People will remember what you said, and perhaps quote it from time to time. You will raise your stature with others. You will be looked at as an expert. And horror of horrors – people may want you to speak again.

For some, the prospect of change – no matter how positive and desired – is unbearable. They would prefer a comfortable mediocrity to uncomfortable excellence. So why push yourself and speak?

In today’s business world, sitting safely on the sidelines is an unsafe place to be. When you don’t stand out, you make yourself expendable. In this time of downsizing and outsourcing, you must continuously demonstrate your value. The way to do that is by speaking. It is not immodest to show what you have to offer your company. In fact, the company hired you because you have something positive to contribute. If they don’t see your contributions, they may not have a reason to keep you.

Standing out isn’t just important in the workplace. Community organizations, schools, youth sports leagues, and religious groups are always looking for leaders. In families as well, you need to provide guidance to your children and come up with ideas to make your home life better. Others can benefit from the ideas and leadership you can offer.

Your company, group, family believe you have something to contribute. Don’t let them down.

The Audience is on Your Side

The key to overcoming nervousness is to know that the audience is on your side. They want you to succeed. They will overlook and forgive your mistakes. They need your ideas and authority. By speaking out, you can connect with others who share your beliefs. You will increase your value in the eyes of others, which is critical in today’s world. You will grow from speaking.

Nervousness comes naturally when you take risks and stretch your abilities, but nervousness shouldn’t prevent you from doing something that will benefit yourself and others. Take that risk, step up to that lectern (even if it is with jittery, unwilling steps), and shine.