Public Speaking First Aid: How to Overcome Nervousness, Intimidation, and Perfectionism

by KFC on October 12, 2011

This is a guest post from Rachel Cheong, a senior at Johnson High School in Texas. She overcame shyness through Model UN and has been doing MUN for four years. She recently started up a delegate strategy blog at www.myModelUN.com.

Freshman year, everybody in Model UN called me “Squeaky”, and to be honest, I totally deserved it. No joke, I was probably the worst speaker on the planet. Whatever you are going through right now, let me reassure you–been there, done that, suffered the humiliation.

The good news is that it gets better. The bad news is that it’s hard. Fortunately, you, unlike me, have the benefit of excellent sites like Best Delegate to coach you through the process. The following are my tips to counter three common public speaking problems in MUN: extreme nervousness, chronic intimidation, and crippling perfectionism. Let’s do it people! Get ‘cho swag on!

The Diagnosis:
Extreme Nervousness

The Symptoms:
Racing Heart, Sweaty Palms, Nausea, Dizziness, Stuttering, Twitchiness

The Prescription:
Most people I’ve talked to recommend

  • Taking slow, deep breaths
  • Counting backwards from 10
  • Thinking relaxing, pleasant thoughts
  • Tensing and untensing your muscles
  • Giving yourself a quick pep talk

And so on and so forth. If this doesn’t work for you, don’t worry. It didn’t work for me either. The one time I tried taking deep breaths, I hyperventilated and almost passed out. Whenever I try to force myself to relax, I only get anxious that I’m not being relaxed enough, an ultimately self-defeating cycle. I am paranoid and bad at dealing with stress. Luckily, that has not proved to be a problem.

If you, like me, are prone to consistent, irrational bouts of nervous tension, please go out and buy yourself some party balloons now, because you just won the public speaking jackpot. Let me explain. To the body there is no fundamental difference between anxiety and excitement. What you interpret as fear when giving a speech in committee is the same feeling you interpret as anticipation before you ski down a high slope. The physiological responses are exactly the same. However, in the first situation, the butterflies end up massacring your performance. In the second situation, they make your experience exhilarating. Why? Because in the first situation, you fight them, and in the second situation, you embrace them.

Here is my advice on dealing with anxiety:

  • Accept that you’re nervous.
  • Don’t try to calm yourself down.
  • Instead, use the edge of tension to speak with greater energy.

My (mindblowingly talented) friend Tomás told me once that it was helpful to take sugar before speaking, to get yourself hyped up. I’ve never done that, but the principle is basically the same. Channel your excess energy into your speeches; work with your nerves instead of against them.

**

The Diagnosis:
Chronic Intimidation

The Symptoms:
Eyes fixed on paper, trembling hands, slumped body posture, barely audible voice, hesitantly raised placard

The Prescription:
Once, one of the new delegates on our team told me, “When I’m up at the podium, I get nervous because I feel like everybody is waiting for me to fail.” The idea that your committee is judging you every time you open your mouth makes it impossible to speak effectively. And it’s not even true! Here are the three things you need to realize:

Your committee wants to be entertained
By the sixth or seventh monotone position paper on the Speaker’s List, most delegates are absolutely dying to be rescued from their torment by someone who makes even a shred of eye contact and has even the tiniest bit of voice projection. Instead of worrying about how they’re judging you, you should be pitying the poor fools. Delivering a great position paper–or 30 second response–is practically a public service in Model UN. Stop thinking about yourself and start thinking about your audience. Deliver your speech with gusto–it’s the right thing to do.

Your committee is nicer than you think
Imagine you saw an obviously nervous delegate at the podium. You wouldn’t roll your eyes or whisper mean things. Chances are you’d probably want to encourage him. 95% of your committee feels the same way about you. (The other 5% are college admissions obsessed psychos.) They feel sympathetic when you slip up and want to help you have a good time. Don’t believe me? Lift your nose up from your position paper. Look around the room. I guarantee that someone will make eye contact with you, smile, or nod.

Your committee is full of nerds
You are in a room full of people who woke up early to debate about foreign affairs in a cramped, dusty classroom instead of sleeping in and going to a football game. While you might feel like the only awkward nerd in a sea of articulate, well-dressed delegates, that is not at all the case. Under all that classy business attire, everybody in your committee is secretly a huge lovable dork, just like you. Remember that and don’t be intimidated!

**

The Diagnosis:
Crippling Perfectionism

The Symptoms:
Overly harsh on self, hates improvising speeches, anxious about failure, can’t deal with uncertainty

The Prescription:
Out of all the bad habits that have held me back, perfectionism has been the most difficult to give up, and also the most necessary. Here are the reasons you have to start embracing failure:

Your chair values quantity over quality
Your chair is more likely to remember a delegate who spoke decently 50 times than one who spoke spectacularly once. Especially in big rooms, where your chances to speak are limited, it’s vital that you keep your placard up and seize each opportunity that comes your way, something you can’t do if you’re obsessing about the details of the speech you’re “eventually” going to give. Being visible works to your advantage. Being perfect does not. Even if you’re not 100% on what you’re going to say, stand up there and say it.

Perfectionism limits your improvement
To paraphrase Chuck Jones, you have about 100,000 bad speeches that you need to deliver before you can get to the good ones. Getting better as a delegate is about learning parliamentary procedure and research techniques, yes, but it’s also about getting the suck slowly beaten out of you at conferences. The only way this can happen is if you are willing to fail, in public, repeatedly, and with great enthusiasm. On a micro level, your perfectionism is slowing down skill building.

On a macro level, your perfectionism is preventing you from taking bigger, more necessary risks. It’s fine to hang around the easy committees when you’re a beginner, but at some point you need to step out of the kiddie pool and go for assignments that will challenge you. Crisis committees, Security Council. Are you going to win awards as often as you did before? No. But that’s the only way you’re going to grow as a delegate. And once you stop growing, it’s just one long rot until you graduate.

You need to rely on your team
You know already that your team respects you for winning. You need to learn how much your team will love you after losing. Your MUN buddies will support you whether you’re perfect or not.

**

Related article: How to Face Your Fear in MUN: 5 Tips for New Delegates 

  • Matt Barger

    Great article. One point on “the chair values quantity over quality”:

    The chair may value quantity over quality, but do not discount substance. I made this mistake at a college conference. Assuming and immersing yourself in your role is crucial here. If you have quality, substantive material to talk about and have immersed yourself to defend and believe in your position, it is much easier to speak naturally with purpose and conviction. This makes it much easier to get over stage fright or perfectionism.

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  • Richard Pyo

    I think one of the biggest things this article lacks is the fact that one needs to prepare extensively before a conference. I’ve learned that the more I practiced my speeches and the more I understood my topic, the easier the speeches became and the smoother my comments flowed. Just a little bit of my own advice.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=2505945 Kevin Felix Chan

      I agree that research and preparation are key. I also think the ability to structure speeches is important. Those two serve as foundations and will probably do a lot more to helping one’s speech delivery than any stylistic elements can.

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  • syd

    wow this is great. i can’t even describe how much you are motivating me but thank you!

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