As a comedian and presenter, I often get asked about how to cope in social situations (the everyday equivalent of being heckled), how to manage anxiety when you’re on the spot (tip: focus on the other person) and how to “network” (clue: never use this word, just think of it as “meeting people”). Basically what people really want to know is how to handle the Hell that is Other People, to paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre.
I find a lot of the same topics come up constantly: the fear of speaking too fast, the fear of nerves taking over and ruining something you’ve spent a long time preparing, the fear of going blank halfway through, the fear of being judged and found wanting.
My new book How to Own the Room: Women and the Art of Brilliant Speaking tackles the unspoken truth: that most people – men and women – have a fear of coming unstuck under pressure. The book is aimed squarely at women, though, because we all recognise the context: women are not always given as many opportunities to speak up. But that’s changing and I know so many women who are fixated on overcoming their fears in 2019 and channelling their inner Michelle Obama. Plus, we have never needed great women speakers more than we need them right now.
However. It’s not as if women the monopoly on insecurity in this area. I know this from personal experience as I’ve worked with lots of mixed groups and seen plenty of nervous male stand-up comedians. But women are, I think, more able to talk about and focus on their anxieties. This can be a positive, as if you can identify a problem, you can fix it. But I also see it holding some women back: they can articulate their worst fears so well and so comfortably that they get stuck on them. Here are my basics for overcoming nerves and showing yourself at your best. They’re designed for women. But I know they work for men too. Though few of them have upper arms as fabulous as Michelle Obama.
1. Think about your physicality
There’s a reason Michelle Obama has those amazing arms. You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete. But good speakers ensure they have enough lung capacity to project and a strong core to hold good posture.
2. Anchor yourself to the ground
Thinking about the feeling of the soles of your feet on the floor is literally, er, grounding. Not only does it relax your posture but it also distracts your monkey mind from all the anxieties and nerves that might be swirling around. If in doubt, send your thoughts to your feet. It’s immediately calming.
3. Gloss over the haters
Every audience, whether big (a packed auditorium) or small (your progress meeting with your boss), has haters in it. Learn to ignore people who are sleepy, unfocused, negative or hostile. Their reaction may have nothing to do with your speaking.
4. Channel the nerves
Nerves, anxiety, butterflies, jitters… Call them what you want, they’re completely normal and even the most seasoned performers from Adele to Barbra Streisand experience them. Expect nerves, don’t fight them, embrace them and ride them out.
5. Take time to breathe
Nerves lessen with exposure and can be calmed with breathing exercises (think four counts in, seven counts out). Some people also swear by “emotional freedom technique” (tapping gently with a finger to an acupressure point like the inside of your wrist).
6. Dress for comfort not for show
This is more important than wearing something colourful or striking or that “looks good on camera”. The first thing that “reads” to an audience is how relaxed you are. So choose an outfit that makes you feel calm, authentic and confident.
7. Rehearse the practical stuff
If you get offered a sound check, always take it. Do a dry run of your walk up and your walk off. Know how you will be introduced and how you will get off stage. Where will your notes be? Where will your glass of water be?
8. Be open to anything
It’s great to have the perfect speech ready to go. But it’s even more useful to feel ready to rip that speech up if the moment demands it and go with the flow. Practise spontaneity in low-pressure environments.
9. Record yourself
Whether audio or video, however painful it is to watch back (and if you’re human, it’s painful), this is the quickest way to see what you do well and what you could do better. Enjoy!