All living creatures have the instinct for survival and when confronted with a perceived danger react in what is called a fight or flight response – i.e., they either defend themselves or run away. In nature, these responses can serve animals well in their struggle for survival. Unfortunately, such responses are misplaced for instructors who are faced with a roomful of students or colleagues. Your body’s reaction to fear is natural. Even seasoned presenters, performers, and politicians still experience fear in some form, but they have learned how to channel it into energy. The goal is to learn how to control fear, not eliminate it.
Physiology of fear
To learn how to control your fear, you need to understand your body’s natural response to fear. The body prepares itself for the challenges of dealing with danger by entering a state of high physiological arousal through the release of a hormone called adrenaline. Most familiar feelings of fear are caused by adrenaline and include the following:
- increased heart rate and breathing: this increase allows for more rapid exchange of oxygen in certain areas of the body, particularly in large muscle groups and major organs.
- butterflies: blood flow is diverted away from the digestive system, leaving your stomach slightly deprived of oxygen and resulting in a fluttery feeling.
- upset stomach: blood flow is diverted away from the digestive system, and the elimination of wastes lightens the body and prepares it for faster flight from danger.
- dizziness: this occurs because increased oxygen in the system increases respiration.
- dry mouth: increased breathing and sweating leads to dehydration.
- sweating: increased blood flow to large muscle groups creates heat in your body causing you to sweat.
- tremors and shakes: blood flow is diverted away from fine motor muscles to large muscles and major organs, leaving fine motor muscles deprived of oxygen and harder to control.
- dilated pupils: increased blood flow to ocular centres results in larger pupils, allowing for more light to enter the eye to aid in perception of foes.
- slurred speech: blood flow is diverted from brain areas associated with secondary functions such as speech.
Controlling fear of public speaking
You can’t control the amount of adrenaline that your body releases in response to fear, but you can control its effects and reduce the amount of fear that you feel:
- Prepare well, especially your introduction. By the time your introduction is over, you will have started to relax.
- Remember that most presentations are not performances. They are a sharing of information.
- Know your audience. Before preparing your presentation, know who you will be presenting to and what their needs and expectations will be for your presentation.
- Rationalize your fears. If you're very nervous, list each fear and consider whether it is reasonable or what you could do to overcome it.
- Use relaxation exercises. Stretching, deep breathing, etc. can help you slow your heart rate.
- Try positive self-suggestion. Visualize yourself presenting successfully.
- Practice your presentation. Present in front of a mirror or with a small group of friends or family.
- Remember to breathe and drink lots of water. Increased breathing and sweating will dehydrate you quickly.
- Eat bananas. They are high in potassium and will help calm the butterflies in your stomach.
- Know your facilities. Test all of your equipment in advance and know what your presentation room looks like. This will help you visualize your presentation and alleviate unnecessary worries about equipment failure.
- Have a backup plan. Know what you will do if the projector doesn’t work. Be prepared to present without your visual aids and have chalk or markers available and a plan for using them if you can’t use the visuals you prepared.
- Arrive early. This is a great opportunity to get to know your audience as they filter into the room.
- Introduce your topic with a personal story. Telling a story helps the audience identify with you and makes the atmosphere warmer and more personable. You may consider using a humorous story if it fits with your topic. Laughing with your audience will relax both them and you.
- Focus on your audience and your topic, not yourself. Avoid overanalyzing your delivery while doing it.
- Remember that your audience wants you to succeed. Audience members get uncomfortable when a presenter struggles. They want you to do well.
- Ignore mistakes, and don't apologize. Often only you know what went wrong.
- Remember that most of your fear symptoms don't show. Audience members can’t see the butterflies in your stomach or the sweat on your palms. Try being video-taped so you can see for yourself.
- Use your nervous energy to generate enthusiasm. Monotonous speakers are not engaging. Your nerves (adrenaline) can give you the rush of energy you need.
Presenting gets easier the more you do it. So challenge yourself. The reward of seeing the look of comprehension or awareness in a student’s or colleague’s face makes it more than worthwhile.
This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Controlling Nervousness. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.