I still get nervous about public speaking.
But I’ve transformed my relationship with nervousness. It is now a friendly companion, not an evil stalker.
There are many aspects to this transformation, and there’s just one that I want to talk about in this post. And that’s what your nervousness says about your confidence.
In the past, I assumed that my nervousness meant that I wasn’t confident. My thinking went like this “If I was confident then surely I wouldn’t be nervous”.
Since I was always nervous, I made that mean I wasn’t confident.
Here’s what I’ve discovered:
Nervousness is not a sign of lack of confidence.
You can be nervous and confident at the same time.
How can nervousness and confidence co-exist?
Here’s a useful way to think about the distinction between nervousness and confidence.
Nervousness describes a set of physical symptoms such as your heart beating fast, butterflies in your tummy, and shaky hands. When we experience these physical symptoms we say “I’m feeling nervous”.
As your nervousness is just a set of feelings it doesn’t mean anything about your ability to give a great presentation.
Confidence, on the other hand, is the thought “I can do this!”. (The Latin root of the word “confidence” is “have full trust”.)
You become confident by doing the work of learning and practicing the skills required to give a great presentation.
Nervousness and confidence can co-exist because they are in different realms – nervousness is an emotion, confidence is a thought or belief.
So you can feel nervous, but be confident.
But, I would have argued in the past, don’t my thoughts and beliefs determine, or at least influence my emotions. So if I’m confident, why would I be nervous?
Why do we get nervous?
The human mind has evolved to think negatively. As Russ Harris puts it in “The Confidence Gap”, the number one job of the mind is to keep you from being killed.
The human mind considers public speaking an inherently risky activity. Public speaking opens you up to negative judgement and rejection by a group of people. In our distant evolutionary past, rejection by a group of people meant almost certain death. That’s because alone, we were at risk from predators and starvation, so we were dependent on a group for survival.
Taking this evolutionary perspective, fear of public speaking was a rational emotion. For most of us, in the privileged western world, public rejection no longer carries the risk of death, but we still suffer from the remnants of our evolutionary past.
Hence why so many of us continue to suffer some degree of nervousness whenever we make ourselves visible. Watch enough famous actors on Graham Norton’s couch talk about their craft, and you realize visibility and fear go hand in hand for nearly everyone. So whenever you are making yourself visible and vulnerable, open to judgement and criticism, this fear will show up.
The presence of nervousness doesn’t mean you’re not confident, it just means you’re human.
We can reframe the fear
If nervousness is the background accompaniment to public speaking, and may never reduce or disappear, what can we do?
First, expect and accept this “natural” nervousness as your constant companion when you’re speaking to a group. Fighting it makes it worse.
Second, we need a better word for it. Unfortunately, the English language lacks a diverse vocabulary for this set of feelings. All of the words we use – fear, anxiety and nervousness – have negative connotations.
Tara Mohr in her book “Playing Big” explains that the Hebrew Bible has a word for fear that is more expansive – yirah. Yirah has three meanings:
1. It is the feeling that overcomes us when we inhabit a larger space that we are used to.
2. It is the feeling we experience when we suddenly come into possession of considerable more energy than we had before.
3. It is what we feel in the presence of the divine.
Public speaking is a playing big activity. Could yirah describe those ongoing sensations that we have whenever we step into the spotlight?
Reframe your ongoing nervousness as yirah. It’s a positive sign that you’re seeking growth instead of stagnation, stepping outside of your comfort zone and making the most of your life.