Should I Tell The Audience That I’m Nervous?

Most people get nervous when they deliver a presentation. As Mark Twain famously said, “There are two types of speakers: those who get nervous and those who are liars.”

Still, most public speaking experts advise presenters to never admit to an audience that they’re nervous. Here’s a sampling of advice:

In his excellent book Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds writes that a “confession that you are nervous may seem honest and transparent, but it is too self-focused at a time when you are supposed to be focused on the audience and their needs and feelings.”

Dorothy Leeds, the author of Power Speak, writes something similar: “You don’t have to reveal your nervousness; you can keep it to yourself. You gain nothing by letting others know you’re worried.”

A Toastmasters article called “10 Tips for Public Speaking” dispenses the same advice: “Don’t apologize for any nervousness or problem—the audience probably never noticed it..”

Public Speaker Scared

The advice to not admit nervousness also often suggests that by mentioning your nervousness, you’re giving the audience a reason to look for it. And if they look for it, the argument goes, they’re likely to find it. Worse, while they’re looking for it, they won’t be paying attention to very much of what you’re saying.

Annette Simmons, the author of The Story Factor, disagrees with that line of thinking:

“If you get nervous…the best strategy is to admit it. If you say something, like “I’m nervous” or a humorous “Is it hot in here to you?” the admission releases your mind from the work of pretending to be something you are not.”

Who’s right?

I generally agree that it’s best not to disclose your nervousness to the audience. While it might comfort you to acknowledge your anxiety, doing so doesn’t help the audience understand and act upon the main point(s) of your speech any better—which, after all, is the primary goal of most presentations.

Plus, your goal is to present yourself as a confident and competent speaker. An admission of nervousness can undercut that perception—which may be completely unnecessary, since the audience may not have otherwise even known that you were nervous (here are seven ways to reduce your fear of public speaking).

But I do think the advice is often over-stated. The declarative sentences and the “never admit nervousness!” tone is probably hyperbolic. Yes, it’s a good idea to avoid such admissions, but no, it’s probably not going to have a devastating impact on your speech if you do it anyway (assuming, of course, you do most of the big things right).

As to Ms. Simmons’ point, I agree with her in more limited circumstances. When a powerful person admits nervousness before an audience of lower status—a president speaking to college students, for example—an admission of anxiety can come across as charming. That might be conveyed through a genuine admission of nervousness or a device intended to express humility (“I have to admit that I’m nervous to speak before such a fine group of scholars. As you might remember, my college grades weren’t exactly stellar.”)

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