Whitman College


Rhetoric and Public Address Department


Alex Bingham

5/14/97

How to overcome the jitters

Throughout history there have been many public addresses and many landmark speeches delivered by many different people. There is one thing that we can say invariably about every person who has ever spoken in front of an audience: they were nervous. Nervousness, otherwise known as "the jitters", confronts everyone who attempts to speak, therefore you know you are not alone. There are several different ways in which nervousness manifests itself. Among these varying forms are the trembling voice, choppiness of speech, fidgety hand motions, speed of speech, and the infamous giggles. Whether you realize it or not, these all root themselves in the fact that you are nervous. But don't lose hope just yet, there are ways in which the jitters can be overcome.

Let's face it, the reason you're nervous is because you are afraid to expose yourself to possible criticism from those listening to you. You might fail and you are scared. However, this is ludicrous, because 99% of the time, your audience has come expressly for the purpose of seeing you speak. Especially in a speech class where everyone has to speak anyway, there is no reason for fear of embarrassment. This having been said, and having done no good because it is in our nature to be self-conscious like this, let me move on to explaining ways to conquer the jitters and its many manifestations.

First we have the trembling voice. From my experience, this appears to come simply from not having spoken much before. This will stop when you begin to feel more comfortable standing in front of people and letting your voice be heard. One way to speed up this process so that you don't spend the whole semester trying to cope with this minor problem is to participate in class more. This will make you, and others, more receptive and comfortable with your voice. Your professors will also appreciate the contribution, I'm sure. This is especially true if you are a quiet person by nature. If you are just too shy to speak in class, then start some serious chatter with your friends, and work up from there.

Next there is the choppiness of speech. This is a personal favorite of mine because it is one that I've had the most difficulty stopping. It seems to start from the nervous energy that builds up inside. Due to a lack of channeling, this energy comes out in an ugly form: choppy speech fragments instead of a smooth, coherent speech pattern. The best way to stop this is to practice your speech. Practice, practice, practice. It can't be said enough times. The more you practice, the more you will be able to transform the nervous energy into enthusiasm because you have your speech down pat. You don't need to concentrate so much on the content of your speech, but the way that you are delivering it. Of course, practice helps in all aspects of speech, but it seems to be particularly effective here.

Third we have fidgety hand motions. These can be very destructive because your hands get moving so fast that they are almost mesmerizing. They distract your audience and detract from the strength and overall message of your speech. In order to stop them, watch some politicians to see what effective hand motions can do to the power of your speech. Generally good speakers have one special hand motion they use when they want to drive a point home. They use others to reflect a change in direction, which fits nicely with a change in voice inflection and provides an especially solid transition. Practicing these hand motions before your speech, then also with your speech will make your hands a help rather than a hindrance.

Fourth there is the speed of the speech, generally too fast. Again, this seems to be an error of overzealousness. People once again have trouble dealing with the adrenaline that results from giving a speech. Hence, practice is always a good solution, but there are also other ways around this one. My favorite technique is to imagine a song. Take your favorite slow song and sing it to yourself a few times, then try talking. I'd bet that your speech pattern has slowed down a lot. The same thing can work for a speech. Let it run through the back of your head. Usually it is most effective to just use the melody and rhythm so that you don't mix the words of the song with the speech, but whatever works for you is fine.

Finally, we'll look at the giggles. The giggles result solely from your feelings of discomfort. It is another in my series of energy releases that are detrimental to your speech. To solve this dilemma, you simply have to concentrate. There are no two ways about it. Concentration is the key. Set your mind to your speech. If you can put your mind to your task, then you can deliver the speech without having to worry about the infamous giggles. By concentrating to avoid the giggles, you will probably also improve the other aspects of your speech.

If you can identify your problem, then you can solve it. Just follow the solution that I've laid out in the paper above, and you'll be on your way to eliminating the jitters. I do not claim to have made a comprehensive list of all the ways in which nervousness affects speakers, but I do think that these are some of the most common forms of the nervous energy, the problems this energy causes, and the ways that we can solve them.

 

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Questions or Comments? Send mail to Jim Hanson at hansonjb@whitman.edu.