Conquering nerves

  • The Stimulant (still) by Natalia Lewandowska (Visual Communication, 2013)

Central School of Speech and Drama draws on its long history of training actors and performers to provide training in confidence and presentation skills. Here's a short excerpt from one of their workbooks, with download links for more advice below

When nervous, the body undergoes a ‘fight or flight’ response: an ancient, protective mechanism in human behaviour, alerting the body to any impending danger. Although we no longer need to hunt for food or face the enemy, we still carry this natural response within us which is triggered off in anxious situations, such as, speaking in public or job interviews. The body alerts us to danger through the production of certain physical symptoms: sweaty palms, butterflies in the stomach, nausea, shaking legs or hands, loss of focus when speaking, clenching jaw and fists, unable to make eye contact, stumbling over words, feeling unable to breathe and a dry mouth. All aspects that an actor must overcome to give the best performance.

It is important to remember that nerves are also positive, they show that you care. However, none of these factors are helpful when speaking publicly or trying to perform your best at interview, therefore specific awareness is required to overcome and minimise the body’s natural response. One of the main techniques to overcome nerves is effective breathing. When we are nervous, we tend to either hold the breath or breathe higher in the body which is effortful chest breathing.

In a training context, participants can explore effective breathing techniques that calm nerves and reduce tension. Tension can easily be transmitted to the audience so it is important to develop strategies to manage your state. As a result, this ensures that sound quality and vocal performance can be flexible and emotional. Remember, tension murders sound quality. With a little practice you can win the fight against nerves and portray a more confident you.

Top Tips

  •  As long as you are aware of what is happening to you physically, you can start to make changes.
  • Imagine that you have roots going through the soles of the feet, through the foundations of the building and down into the earth below. This will ground you. 
  • Have positive thoughts instead of negative ones. Tell yourself how good you are at public speaking and how much you enjoy it!
  • Return to alignment exercises and practice before the big day. This will help to release tension.
  • Breathing can help get endorphins, the positive hormones, into the system.
  • Practice and prepare your presentation to build your confidence and keep your nerves at bay.
  • Simply placing one hand on the belly can encourage and remind you to breathe effectively and thereby calm your nerves.
  • Close your eyes and remember a relaxing place and just breathe!

Download the whole of this workbook and more on the CSSD website