Being nervous means what you're doing matters to you.
This post was inspired by a post by my friend Zach Messler, called "Overcome your fear of public speaking. Here's what I do." If you aren't a bit nervous about a speech or performance, you're probably not engaged or excited about what you're about to do.
It was 9:45 am and the ceremony was scheduled to begin at 10. I knew they would be running late because they were bringing in WWII veterans, most of them disabled, all of them 88+ years old, plus their families from all over the US and Canada. The First Special Service Force, sometimes referred to as the Devil's Brigade, had received the Congressional Medal of Honor, finally, earlier that year. The metal was being presented to Fort Harrison for display, as the home of the First Special Service Force in the beginning of WWII.
As the public affairs person for the city, I had been involved from the beginning of the plan for the weekend of activities, to include this ceremony at Fort Harrison on Friday morning, as well as a re-enactment of the parade on Saturday, of soldiers that marched down our main street just before they left Montana to head to Europe. When asked if I would sing the US and Canadian Nation Anthems for the parade, I was honored and accepted. My friend agreed to come to Helena to sing with me, so we could perform the songs in harmony.
I assumed they had found someone to perform the two anthems for the ceremony the day before the parade, so when I arrived that morning, I was surprised to hear they were planning to... use a recording.
It seemed insulting to me, so I impulsively offered to sing both anthems. Solo. Unaccompanied.
When I began the Star Spangled Banner, standing at the podium in front of more than 200 guests and a handful of WWII heroes, I was more nervous than I think I have ever been. My legs were shaking so hard, I thought they might actually collapse beneath me. I gripped the side of the podium with my left hand, hit the high note at the end, paused, and sang the Canadian National Anthem for the first time in my life. When I left the stage after the ceremony, a Canadian woman asked me: "Are you sure you're not Canadian?"
I've often been asked:
How do you get over the nerves during a performance?
- Change your internal message: "I'm so excited about this!" Instead of "I'm so nervous!"
- Breathe with intention. In other words, don't start speaking or singing until you have taken a few deep breaths to calm yourself. When you feel yourself getting shaky again, pause. When you're planning your presentation - mark your script at places where a pause would be natural.
- Insist on a microphone stand or a lapel mic. Holding a microphone will exacerbate your nerves, trust me. If you must hold a microphone, start by holding it with both hands. If you know ahead of time you'll be holding the mic, wear something heavy on your mic-holding wrist, like a large watch or bracelet. The weight will help with the shaking.
- Breathe into your diaphragm, relax your knees slightly, and tighten the muscles in your lower abdomen. Feel your knees wobbling and your heart racing? Don't try to stop the shaking, that just makes it worse. Make sure your feet are planted, your knees just slightly bent, and squeeze those muscles in your rear end - hard. This provides structure and a more solid foundation for your voice. That squeeze will help make the vibrato in your voice less noticeable.
- As part of your preparation, choose your shoes first, then build your outfit. Make sure you select shoes that make you feel confident and attractive. When you feel yourself start to shake, glance at your feet, solid in position, then look back up and continue. Again, plan your pauses so you have opportunities to collect yourself.
Zach Messler is a master of keeping an audience engaged, and he makes it look so easy! Give yourself credit for putting yourself out there - it's scary, and it's not something everyone has the courage to do. Practice these techniques while practicing Zach's and you'll improve every time you speak.
*cover photo courtesy of @elizawileyphotographer, parade photo courtesy of the Helena Independent Record