Yes, nerves. And, calm.
The spotlight on the stage might be on you, but the spotlight in your heart should be on your audience.
I attempt a series of deep breaths, but end up with a couple shaky ones instead. My hands are damp from sweat, I’m not even sure where my stomach is at, and my heart thumps like I’ve just finished running a 10K. As I stand behind the backstage curtain, knowing there are several thousand people waiting for me to step out to their side of it, my nerves are through the roof. “I can’t mess up,” I tell myself.
Whether preparing to speak in front of an audience of 3,000 or 3, for half an hour or half a minute, to a group of people hoping to be inspired or to a group of people who will decide if we’re hired, nervousness about saying words aloud in front of others is a pretty universal human experience. How many times have you found yourself scrambling to find the words that came out so easily the day before when you practiced to your mirror? What is it about the real deal that makes us forget we are, indeed, capable?
Performing in any capacity, public speaking or otherwise, puts pressure on us to do well. We certainly don’t want to be embarrassed, and in our best case scenarios, we impress others with our delivery. It’s not enough for the audience to implement our message; we want our name to be remembered as the one who delivered such a good message. This is the selfish side of nervousness, one that seeks our own glory.
Yet, there is a genuine side to nerves, one that is nervous because we do simply want our message to come across effectively. “We’re nervous because we care,” as my good friend Taylor always says. How do we lessen our selfish nerves and channel our selfless nerves? I think the answer comes through the window of calm that only opens when we recognize we are never meant to be the star of the show.
Back to that backstage curtain and my shaky lungs. I prepare to walk out under the spotlight as George Strait’s “Heartland” echoes through the convention arena in Springfield, Illinois. It’s my retiring address as a State FFA Officer, and just as my heels hit the line of tape that marks when my face will come into view, a past officer working backstage looks at me pointedly from across the backstage curtain corridor and gives me an encouraging thumbs-up. I smile, turn towards my awaiting audience, and step out into the light. As I dive into my stories of overcoming fear with love, I feel the nerves dissipate and I’m left with this deep sense of peace. I think of the people in my stories and the way they poured into my life as I become immersed in the message I believe in so deeply.
The time I spent on stage that day taught me the secret to finding calm in the midst of nerves: focus on adding value to your audience, not garnering attention for yourself as the speaker. The selfish nerves will disappear when you prepare your message with the intent of helping your audience learn from the lessons you’ve been given. The selfless nerves will channel into the energy you need when you hit the stage (or the interview room, or the recording studio… wherever your performance may be) just like friction creates a spark. When we learn that we don’t have to prove ourselves on the stage, we simply must share our gifts for the good of others, it’s incredibly freeing.
As I’ve continued to give speeches, I’ve noticed even more how understanding and valuing the audience leads to both a better message and less selfish nerves from the speaker. When you’re able to make prolonged eye contact with one listener at a time, you begin to feel how they react to your words. As you take in this real-time feedback, you become excited about shifting your presentation such that it better resonates with those listeners. I’m just now learning how to feel when the audience is about to disengage and how to reel them back in with a different tone of voice or a different way of saying the next line. It’s an art that I look forward to developing—simply the awareness of the dynamic between audience and speaker is a mindset shift as you realize even more your purpose as a speaker is to engage the audience with your message, not make your name unforgettable.
Nerves are inevitable, if we care about what we do. Yet, the calm that comes through channeling our selfless nerves is an intentional choice, a choice to recognize that we are not our key message. Our goal in every presentation should be to add value to our listeners, not to earn recognition for our own name. Even then, often the audience will remember the speaker because we engaged them effectively; still, it should not be our first aim. Let the nerves remind us we are not the star of the show, and let the calm remind us our audience is.
What’s got you nervous this week? How will you find calm in the midst of those nerves? Share your thoughts in the comments below or tag me on social media at @nffaevp and @miriamrosah and use the hashtags #EmbracingComplexity and #FFA21.
One more thing… A book I read this summer spurred me on to think more deeply about this idea of focusing on serving people instead of seeking attention. It shifted how I think about many other things in my life, too. I highly recommend you check it out—learn more at this link.
And one more, one more thing… while this is my last Tuesday as a National FFA Officer, it’s not the last day of Embracing Complexity. Stick around for a special announcement next week for what’s coming up after I retire my blue jacket.