Tip no.2 for overcoming speaker’s nerves

Memorise just a sentence or two of introduction.

For most people the scariest moment in a talk is right at the beginning, when you are standing there in front of the room, before you have said those first few words. Perhaps you have just been introduced, so everybody is staring at you and waiting for you to say something. Perhaps there is no introduction and you have to bring the audience to order before you can begin. Either way, this is a key moment both for you and for the audience: the moment when you simultaneously calm your own nerves, set the tone for the presentation, and establish what kind of relationship you will have with your audience.

If there is one moment that you want to go particularly well, this is it. If there is one moment where forgetting your lines would be particularly embarrassing, this is it. If there is just one moment in the talk where you need to have prepared, and memorised, exactly what you are going to do and say, this is that moment. If you know exactly what words you will use for that first line, then you will find that your nerves are nowhere near as bad as they would be if you were quickly trying to decide what to say first, or wondering whether you dare look at your notes again before you start.

Most of the nervousness felt by speakers at this point comes from uncertainty or lack of confidence. If you are certain and confident at least about your first sentence, your  nervousness will fade. In the moments before you stand up to speak, that first line is the only thing you need to remember or worry about. And if it’s a simple, effective first line it will be easy to remember and it will be very little worry. It does not need to be a brilliant line. It can be very straightforward – in fact if you are an inexperienced speaker it is best to keep it as simple as possible. You don’t have to make a joke or say something astonishing. You just have to get the talk started without falling over, annoying the audience, or forgetting what you are talking about.

For a regular university lecture I normally get the room’s attention with something as basic as

“Hello everybody… shall we make a start?”

I then pause for a moment while the room falls silent and I follow up with a nice straightforward reminder of what is happening:

“This is the third in our series of lectures on glacier hydrology. I hope you’ve had a chance to look at the set reading in advance of today’s session. Today we will be looking at how the drainage network evolves through the year.”

And that’s it. That’s enough to get the whole thing started, and it takes the talk through to the next stage – whether that is showing the first slide, inviting questions about the previous lecture, asking the students to do some brain-warmer start-up exercise, or launching into the first topic from my notes. We’ve started. We’re in. I didn’t fall over.

For a conference talk, or for a student presentation, the opening line might be a little different, usually involving a word of thanks to the person whoever invited you to speak and a word explaining who you are and why you are there. My style is not necessarily a model of smoothness, but it has worked for me up to now. All we are doing is getting started without getting stuck:

“Hello everybody! Thanks very much for inviting me to speak today. My name is Peter Knight and I’m going to talk to you about how the glacier drainage system evolves through the course of the year.”

As I said, it doesn’t have to be great. It just has to get you through that transition from the point where you are not yet started to the point where you are safely underway. It’s like a footballer getting the first touch of the ball, or the batsman getting off the mark with a first run. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to be safe. It just needs to be something that you have memorized and feel confident about. Don’t make it something hard to remember or difficult to say; the whole point of this tip is that you are making sure your opening line is nothing to worry about. It’s in the bag before you start. Practice it a thousand times if you have to. Have it written in big letters on your hand if you really must. Whatever it takes for you to feel completely safe with it.

As soon as you have delivered that opening line you can have some follow-up device to take the pressure off the next section of the talk (I’ll say more about that in a future tip!) but to avoid those pre-talk nerves just have the introductory line safely memorized. It’s surprising how much pressure that will take off.

Memorize your first couple of introductory sentences.

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