How to hide your nerves

If you get nervous speaking to your boss, making a presentation or speaking up in a meeting, you are most definitely not alone. How can you prevent your jelly legs, sweaty hands, stammering voice or mushy brain from spoiling the great impression you want to make? Here are some ideas:

Remember that your body language is a dead give-away of nervousness. To look cool, calm and self-possessed, try to remain still without being stiff. Avoid shifting around or constantly moving your weight from one foot to the other when you’re standing or jiggling your leg or twisting your chair from side to side when you’re sitting.

Avoid fiddling with a pen and constantly grooming your hair. Keep your hand movements open and relaxed, not extreme, jerky, sudden or quick. Sit or stand straight and hold your head up, and look people in the eye when you’re speaking to them.

When nerves strike, you’ll probably start breathing quickly and shallowly, and high up in your chest or even in your throat. That works against you because it stops oxygen reaching your brain and your brain needs oxygen to think clearly. It also weakens your voice and causes your words to come in awkward fits and starts. Relax by taking three deep breaths. This calms you and delivers oxygen to your brain so you can say something sharp and interesting. It also strengthens your voice, making you sound confident.

Speaking of your voice, relax your throat to lower your pitch to sound more credible. A high-pitched voice makes you sound nervous, overly excited, immature and/or unconfident, not to mention shrill, while deeper voices sound more confident and competent. And avoid the upward inflections. Statements that sounds like questions lessen your believability.

Take care to speak clearly so that people don’t have to strain to hear you–most won’t bother. Speak from deep in your diaphragm rather than high in your throat so that your voice has volume and richness.

And smile. A sincere smile, as distinct from a nervous grimace, releases endorphins, the ‘feel-good’ chemicals, that can raise your confidence. Plus, smiles are catching, so you might set up a ‘virtuous circle’.  Plus, a smile makes you look more interesting and approachable. Plus, when you’re smiling, more people want to listen to you.  All of which puts your nerves on the back seat.

Anyone can hide their nerves. You may need to concentrate to do so at first, and keep reminding yourself what to do, but after a while, cool, calm and confident body language soon becomes second nature.

Make your meetings positive

An interesting article in April’s Harvard Business Review (‘The New Science of Building Great Teams’ by Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland) reported research that examined the patterns of communication in teams (e.g. how much they gesture, interrupt, listen and talk; their tone of voice; whether they face one another when speaking, etc.). The researchers reckon they can predict a team’s success based on three elements:

  1. how team members contribute to the team as a whole (energy)
  2. how much team members communicate with one another (engagement)
  3. how the team communicates with other teams (exploration).

They concluded that the key to building a great team is not to select the smartest or most experienced people but to shape and guide the way they communicate with each other.

In her Workplace Communicator Blog posted 11/11/12, Marie-Claire Ross combined these successful ways of communicating with Dr Barbara Fredrickson’s research into positive psychology, reported in her book Positivity. Marie-Claire concludes that to improve safety meetings (or any meetings, or to help people work better together, for that matter) you need to make your meetings positive.

This means being positive in the messages you give (see my blog How Managers Communicate). Here are some tips to make your meetings positive:

  • Open on a positive note.
  • Keep the atmosphere upbeat and inclusive.
  • Keep ‘critics’ (negative team members) in check.
  • Get people in the habit of making suggestions rather than criticising and on focusing on the future rather than the past.
  • Make at least three positive comments for every negative comment. (Frederickson says the ratio in high performance teams is 6 positive comments to 1 negative comment, not 3 to 1, but if you’re team isn’t yet high performing, 3 to 1 seems a good place to start.).
  • Concentrate on what’s best for the organisation or team rather than on individuals. This means, for instance, not letting people with personal, or ‘hidden’, agendas introduce topics and working to build bridges between any functional silos that exist in the organisation. Another way to build the team and the organisation is by telling stories that illustrate a behaviour you want to continue; this might be reviewing and praising someone’s actions that demonstrated safe working or talking about how someone on your team or in another team put the corporate values into action.

Discussion questions

Do you think a team’s internal and external communications can predict how successful and productive the team is? Is it possible to predict a team’s performance just from observing team members’ body language and tone of voice?

What are the communications in your work team like? How many positive statements do you and your team members make for every negative statement? Why not keep a tally at your next meeting? Do your team members think about what’s best for the team or the organisation or only for themselves individually?

How to generate interest in your meetings with spiffy agendas

Whether they’re actual or virtual, how would you like people to look forward to attending your meetings,come prepared and actively participate?

You’ve seen in Chapter 27 (pages 875 – 876) that using verbs to write results-oriented agendas helps people focus on what each item is intended to achieve. Another idea I’ve recently come across is to pose each agenda item as a question, for example: What progress have we made on designing the customer survey? What improvements could we make to increase our efficiency in processing orders? This engages peoples’ thought processes.

Another idea is to state who is leading each agenda item. For instance, you could write: Keith to bring us update on the progress have we made on designing the customer survey; Amy to lead us in brainstorming ideas for increasing our efficiency in processing orders.  This opens up meetings and makes them a bit more interesting.

Discussion questions

What interesting ways of writing agendas have you come across?