9.2 – Why am I so nervous?

Learning Objectives

  • describe some of the causes for the fear of public speaking
  • identify some coping strategies to help build your confidence

Why do we get so nervous?

If you feel nervous when speaking in public, or even just thinking about speaking in public, you’re not alone. In fact, public speaking is a common fear; some people are terrified just thinking about it.

Most of us can talk to our family and friends without fear, but when facing an audience – especially if it’s people we don’t know – we get nervous. Why?

Four things contribute to our public speaking fears:

  1. Experiences
  2. Expectations
  3. Biology
  4. Lack of practice

1. Experiences

We tend to remember situations in which we have been hurt or suffered in some way; it’s our brain’s way of protecting us from being hurt again. When we think about presenting, we remember past experiences of presenting. If you didn’t know how to present well, maybe you were boring or forgot what to say. Maybe people laughed at you, or you felt embarrassed and ashamed. Your brain will remember presenting as painful and embarrassing – something  to avoid.

The good news is that as you create new, positive memories of presenting in public, they’ll replace those earlier negative memories.

2. Expectations

We may have beliefs about what will happen when we speak in public. These are sometimes reinforced by past experiences, and can include the following:

I might…

  • Forget what to say
  • Look nervous
  • Be boring
  • Not make sense
  • Be shy
  • Be the only bad presenter in the class
  • Say the wrong thing
  • Forget how to speak English

What beliefs do you have about speaking in public?

3. Biology

When faced with a stressful situation, our brain activates the fight or flight response, an ancient mechanism designed to protect us from danger. When we go into fight or flight response, our body releases adrenaline, which can cause:

  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Increased heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Stomach discomfort, dry throat
  • Feeling like you need to pee
  • Mind going blank
  • Tunnel vision
  • Muscles tense or tremble
  • Feeling too hot or too cold
  • Goosebumps
  • Hunching
  • Changed perception of time
  • Difficulty sleeping the night before your presentation

The fight or flight response is useful if we’re under attack and need to protect ourselves, but not if we’re delivering a presentation! These reactions are the exact opposite of what helps us present well. But they are normal – even professional presenters experience them. And they don’t mean that you’re a bad speaker; it’s just biology! Luckily there are lots of strategies to reduce or eliminate your fight or flight symptoms.

Take a moment to think about what happens to your body when you’re feeling nervous. Imagine that you’re about to present in front of a large audience. What physical symptoms do you notice?

4. Lack of practice

If we don’t have a lot of public speaking experience, or haven’t done it for a long time, it can be scary. And if we don’t know how to manage our fears, it can become terrifying. One of the great benefits of taking this this course is that you’ll a chance to present in a safe environment. We’ll work on how to present well, how to manage the fear, and offer some opportunities to practice your skills. The more you present, the easier it gets. Promise!

Coping strategies

These practices help keep your nerves in check before, during and after your presentation.


Practice is the most effective coping strategy. When you know your content, you’re more confident. And because you’re not struggling to remember the content, you can focus on delivery. We recommend that you practice any presentation at least ten times.

  • Practice delivering & timing your speech: rehearse in front of family, friends, pets, a mirror
  • Practice silently on transit or walking down the street
  • Record yourself
  • Practice until you don’t need notes

Before your presentation

Calming techniques

  • Take slow, deep breaths
  • Meditate
  • Visualize success
  • Workout earlier in the day to regulate your hormones
  • Substitute negative thoughts with positive ones
  • Remind yourself that you’re only presenting to a few classmates, not thousands of people
  • Remind yourself that your audience wants you to succeed

Biology hacks


  • Create a presentation that uses your language (don’t try to be someone you’re not) Speak like you do in conversation; don’t be formal or try to impress your audience with fancy words.
  • Practice! (At least 10 times is best)
  • Familiarize yourself with the setting/room ahead of time
  • Familiarize yourself with the equipment ahead of time
  • Dress comfortably & appropriately
  • Bring water to drink
  • Arrive early

During your presentation

  • Remember to breathe. If you get anxious, pause and take a long slow breath in through your nose.
  • Have water nearby (in a spill-proof container)
  • Nobody knows exactly what you’re planning to say, so if you stumble, just continue on
  • If you feel overwhelmed, try to concentrate on what you’re saying, not how you’re saying it

When to seek help for anxiety

It’s natural to experience some nervousness when speaking in public. But for some people, significant anxiety makes it really difficult to “press through the fear.” If you’re feeling distressed, overwhelmed, or have concerns about your wellbeing, please know that there are many resources available. You may want to start by speaking with your instructor, health care provider, or contacting the your college’s Counseling Department.

Shame Waves

Shame Waves – Article/Text

You just gave the best presentation ever. You were calm, confident and engaging. The audience loved you!

But now you’re done. Flooded with adrenaline, your brain works quickly, evaluating your performance — your dreadful, awful performance. In high resolution, your brain replays the errors, the omissions, the failures. Moments ago you were proud, now you’re embarrassed.

What happened?

You’ve been hit by a shame wave. It may feel like you’re drowning in shame, but you can and will survive.

What’s a shame wave?

A shame wave is a strong, sudden tidal wave of shame and embarrassment that slams into many people right after they do something in public, whether it’s giving a presentation or speaking up in class. Shame waves attack beginners and experts.

Where do shame waves come from?

Humans are social creatures. We crave community. Community helps us survive and thrive.

But our community has to accept us or they might abandon us. Public actions – like giving a presentation – are risky. If the community doesn’t like our performance, they might not want us. So our brains use embarrassment as a tool to stop us from doing things the community might not like.

Embarrassment keeps us safe, but too much can cause a shame wave.

Why are shame waves bad?

Although their intentions are good — to protect us — shame waves drown us in powerful negative messages. Shame Waves tell us “for our own good” that:

  • You’re not perfect
  • Failure is bad
  • Because you’re not perfect, you’re a failure

Those messages are evil. Failure is a normal, necessary part of learning. We do very few things perfectly the first time — almost everything you’ve learned took more than one attempt. If you refuse to do things you’re not good at, you won’t learn. And you need to be a lifelong learner to have a great life.

How do shame waves affect our confidence?

It’s human nature to evaluate our own performance. This helps us learn and improve. But shame waves are destructive. Not to be confused with useful feedback, which is gentle, timely and appropriate, shame waves are violent, inconsiderate and hateful.

  • Shame Waves damage your self-confidence
  • They also damage your learning-confidence — the belief that you can improve at something
  • Shame waves can make you give up

Shame waves focus on the negative. Reviewing our performance, we tend to remember only mistakes and problems. Even if 99% was perfect, shame waves focus on the 1% that wasn’t.

Try this simple perspective trick: Hold your hand at arm’s length. How big is it? Now hold it right in front of your eyes. How big is it now? Huge, right? It’s the same with shame waves; if we focus on the 1%, it feels like everything was terrible. Now we feel ashamed, embarrassed and hopeless.

Grab a strategy and enjoy the ride

We need coping strategies to support ourselves. Good coping strategies are like surfboards that help us ride shame waves to safety. Good strategies can decrease the number of shame waves that hit, and the amount of damage done.

Coping strategies can be simple, like taking a few slow breaths. They can be complex, like retraining our thoughts. Here are some useful coping strategies:

Coping strategies

  1. Expect shame waves. They’re normal; most people experience them. When it hits, just say to yourself, There’s my shame wave, right on schedule.
  2. Remind yourself that your brain’s being mean but its intentions are good. Thank your brain and tell it to be nicer.
  3. Expect to be imperfect, and to make mistakes. Focus on what you learned from the experience.
  4. Think about next time: What will you do better next time?
  5. Meditate. Do nothing except sit with the shame. Allow it to wash over you. Don’t try to fix it. Just sit and feel shame’s heat. Let it blaze and rage until it burns itself out.
  6. Breathe. A long, deep, slow breath in through your nose, then out through your mouth. Relax.
  7. Tell someone you trust about your shame wave. Talking can help weaken its power. And you’ll probably discover that you’re not alone.
  8. Practice the 10-10-10 rule: How will you feel about your performance in 10 hours? 10 weeks? 10 years? Adjust as necessary.

You’ll find that some of these strategies resonate with you and some don’t. That’s fine. Find what works, and make your own surfboard of strategies. Next time a shame wave hits, grab your coping strategies surfboard and ride to the Beach of Calm Self-Acceptance.

Audio & transcript source:Why am I so nervous?” In Business Presentation Skills by Lucinda Atwood & Christian Westin licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.

Fears Quiz – Test your knowledge

Fears Quiz – Test your Knowledge (Text version)
  1. True or false? Fears associated with public speaking are normal. They can stem from past experiences, beliefs about ourselves, our biology, and a lack of practice.
  2. Complete the sentence by adding the following words in the correct place: equipment, practise, early, dress, setting:
    In order to set yourself up for success in advance of a presentation, familiarize yourself with the (a)                       , such as where you and the audience will be situated, and the (b)                       , such as a microphone or presentation remote control. You should also arrive (c)                       , (d)                        comfortably and appropriately, and (e)                        ahead of time.
  3. Some calming techniques that you can engage in before your presentation include:
    1. Working out earlier in the day to regulate your hormones, visualizing success, and replacing negative thoughts with positive ones.
    2. Working out after your presentation, visualizing a past time when you were nervous, and replacing positive thoughts with negative ones.
    3. Taking quick, shallow breaths.
    4. Drinking lots of tea or coffee
  4. Fill in the missing words:
    Some biology hacks when getting ready to deliver your presentation include: drinking water to ensure you’re properly (a)                       , wearing layers or adjusting the room temperature to ensure you’re comfortable, and adopting power (b)                       , as recommended by Dr. Amy Cuddy.
  5. Complete the sentence by adding the following words in the correct place: talking, breathe, perspective, learned
    Shame Waves are normal. Some coping strategies for dealing with them include: Focusing on what you (a)                        from the experience, remembering to (b)                        deeply, (c)                        to someone you trust about the experience, and taking (d)                        to remember that you may not feel this shame as intensely in the future.

Check your Answers: [1]

Activity Source:Why am I so nervous?” In Business Presentation Skills by Lucinda Atwood & Christian Westin licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.

Attribution & References

Except where otherwise noted, this chapter (H5P & text) is adapted from “Why am I so nervous?” In Business Presentation Skills by Lucinda Atwood & Christian Westin licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.

    1. a
    2. a) setting, b) equipment, c) early, d) dress, e) practise.
    3. (a).
    4. a) hydrated, b) poses.
    5. a) learned, b) breathe, c) talking, d) perspective.


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Communication Essentials for College Copyright © 2022 by Jen Booth, Emily Cramer & Amanda Quibell, Georgian College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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