Managing Nervousness


by Tom Henschel

Neha was freaked out.

When she’d finished her presentation to the division presidents, she’d looked down at the conference table and seen a sticky note in her admin’s handwriting that hadn’t been there at start. Her admin later told her that she’d entered the board room at the far end, walked the length of the table while Neha was speaking, put down the note, made eye contact with Neha, nodded, then walked back out.

Neha had absolutely no memory of any of it, which freaked her out.

As a consequence, we spent a good portion of her coaching talking about managing her nerves. The three ideas she found most helpful were these:

1. Separate the ‘nasty voice’

Neha’s nervousness was a voice in her head telling her she hadn’t prepped enough, didn’t know enough, hadn’t gathered the right information, and on and on. But upon rational inspection, there was no evidence any of those things had ever occurred. Neha learned to separate from her nasty voice by talking back to it with reason and reality.

At one point she told me, “Now my nasty voice is like a car alarm in the neighborhood. I know it’s happening, but it’s not my car. I don’t have to pay any attention to it.”

2. Focus on conveying ideas

Neha cared about the information she shared. She learned that focusing on getting her ideas out of her brain and into her listener’s brains was a task all by itself. When she focused on communicating her ideas, she could reframe her material to her listeners’ point of view.

She said, “Focusing on why they would care about this keeps me focused on what I’m there to do. That calms me down.”

3. Give up the script

Neha wrote scripts to narrate her slides, then put pressure on herself to speak what she’d written. I urged her to give up her scripts and use mental bullet points instead. “You don’t have to say the exact words you said last night when you were rehearsing,” I told her. “You know your material. Speak to the bullet points.”

Relieved of the pressure to say the right words, she found she could do a much better job of conveying her ideas (#2).

Practicing those three tools diminished her nerves little by little. She was patient and diligent … and she got better.

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