Stand and Deliver Resources

Part A: Getting Ready

A3. Managing nerves

Most people will experience some form of nerves before getting up to speak in front of people. Two things to remember:

  1. Nerves aren’t the enemy, and can actually help both you and your audience
  2. Everyone experiences nerves differently

Nerves aren’t the enemy

To understand why nerves aren’t the enemy, it helps to understand the science. What is happening in our bodies when we experience nerves?

Nerves are a form of stress. When we experience stress, a part of our brain called the hypothalamus triggers our pituitary gland to release the hormone ACTH. This stimulates our adrenal glands to release a variety of hormones including, among others, adrenaline and cortisol. The release of these hormones affects our muscles, blood circulation, digestive system, blood sugar and even how our eyes work.

Say hello to your hypothalamus! Source:

Say hello to your hypothalamus! Source:

Nerves can help you!

In the context of public speaking, two of the most interesting broad effects of this stress response are that it can increase our alertness and give us a boost of energy. When you’re about to speak in front of people, do you think it might be helpful to be a bit more alert and have a boost of energy? This is how nerves can help you. When you feel a bit nervous, try to remember that the physical experience of nerves can actually help you do a better job! (A 2013 Harvard study found that encouraging people to think of performance anxiety as 'excitement' actually helped them perform better!)

>> More on how stress can be a good thing:

TED Talk: 'How to make stress your friend' by Kelly McGonigal (14 mins)

Nerves can help your audience!

Take comfort in this: when you are feeling nervous, it is a sign that you care about what you are about to do. Nerves can indicate that you recognise the importance of having people’s time and attention, and that you really want to do it well. If you had NO nerves at all, this could *potentially* indicate that you haven’t grasped the importance of what you’re doing. So if you are a bit nervous, be encouraged that your audience will benefit from the fact that you are valuing their time and attention and that you care about doing your best!

>> More on the science behind your nerves:

Articles to read:

TED-Ed Lesson:

'The science of stage fright' by Mikael Cho (4 min video + short article with links):

Everyone experiences nerves differently

After reading about how nerves can be good for both you and your audience, you may worry if you aren’t feeling nervous before speaking. But we need to remember that everyone experiences nerves differently, and you can experience nerves without necessarily ‘feeling’ nervous. Some of the ways people may experience nerves include:

  • Shaky hands or lips
  • Shallow breathing
  • Dry mouth
  • Fidgeting (e.g. repeatedly clicking a pen or straightening your notes)
  • Loss of appetite before speaking
  • Swaying rather than standing still
  • Gripping the microphone tightly
  • Crossing ankles when standing
  • Pacing, unable to stand still
  • Talking very quickly
  • Filling in silences with unnecessary words (e.g. ‘um’, ‘ah’, ‘like’, ‘you know’)
Are you an ankle crosser?

Are you an ankle crosser?

You may not even realise you experience some of these things; it may be only once you get feedback from someone or watch or listen to a recording of yourself that you see what your nervous mannerisms are!


Try these ideas to identify what your nervous mannerisms are:

  • Next time you speak, take a moment before you get up to talk to think about what you are feeling. Are you feeling nauseous? Light-headed? Hyperactive? By pausing and paying attention to your body each time you get up to speak, you can start to see patterns of behaviour and then start to address them!
  • Next time you speak, ask someone beforehand to film you (even just on their phone). Afterwards, be brave and watch it! If you are looking for physical nervous mannerisms (e.g. swaying or excessive pacing), it can be helpful to watch either with the sound off or in fast-forward - this helps magnify your physical behaviour without getting distracted by your words.

stadium-packing performer Adele famously still gets nervous for every performance, even once projectile vomiting on someone.

stadium-packing performer Adele famously still gets nervous for every performance, even once projectile vomiting on someone.

Tips for managing nerves

The presence of nerves won’t ruin your message. But if your nerves manifest in significant or noticeable ways, they might distract you from delivering your message, or distract people from hearing your message. So while we don’t need to try and banish nerves all together, we can think about how our nerves are expressed, and how to manage those symptoms so that our message can have maximum impact.

Think about how you experience nerves. What are some simple things you could do to decrease the impact of these symptoms? Sometimes these strategies are obvious; it's just a matter of remembering to do them! Check out these examples:

If you get breathless: Take a couple of deep breaths before speaking, and take a good breath in between sections of your talk. You may need to write ‘breathe’ on your notes or draw a picture of a cloud or something to remind you to breathe deeply, otherwise you will likely forget!

You might need to put reminders in your notes!

You might need to put reminders in your notes!

If you are a pen-clicker: If you need to hold something in your hand, go for a silent and unmoving object rather than a noisy pen.

If you are a pacer: If you tend to pace back and forth in a way that's distracting, make a point of standing in the one place for at least some sections of your talk. You may want to scribble 'STILL!' or draw a stick figure in the margins of your notes as a reminder. We'll talk more about using the speaking space effectively in Part C: Delivery (coming soon).

If you lose appetite: If you lose your appetite before you speak, plan your day so that you've eaten something decent earlier in the day, so you have some physical fuel in your body when you speak.

Over time and with practise, your nerves will become more manageable for you and less distracting for your audience.

>> More tips for managing nerves:

Articles to read:

Video to watch:

TED Talk: 'How I beat stage fright' by Joe Kowan (8 mins):

More serious symptoms

When we talk about ‘nerves’ here, we are talking about annoying but relatively mild and short-lived symptoms. If you are experiencing more significant symptoms such as debilitating panic attacks or fainting, these are not helpful for either you or your audience. If this is you, we recommend you get some professional advice on managing these symptoms from your doctor, counsellor or psychologist.