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How to handle your emotions when speaking in public

Updated: Jun 11, 2019

When most people consider how to “handle your emotions,” they instantly imagine I’m talking about managing their nervousness.


True, handling your nervousness is a vital part of being a confident speaker. The sad truth is that most presentation skills trainers will still tell you that it’s “natural to be nervous when you speak,” which creates a massive problem. When people believe it’s natural to be nervous, they become nervous! I will tell you that it’s NOT natural to be nervous when you speak, it is simply a learnt behaviour that seems culturally acceptable, much like shaking hands when you greet a business associate. It’s a cultural norm. Just because everyone does it doesn’t mean it’s natural; after all you weren’t born doing it, you simply learnt it over time.


Aside from all of that, there is a whole other area of emotional expression that people overlook.

Your willingness to express emotion = the extent to which you can influence

At our women’s speaking club last week, we were practising connecting with the audience through emotion. Each person started delivering a story and at a random point were asked to deliver it in a different “emotional key.”


So, imagine this exercise – you’re talking about how you made your breakfast this morning, and then you’re invited to deliver your story in a way that is angry, then you switch gear to express joy, and then you might switch gear again and express despair – all while talking about something as simple as making your breakfast. That might feel a little weird at first – angry making your toast, joyful cracking an egg, despair pouring your coffee…


Apart from the fact that it was fun and challenging and caused us all to have a good laugh, what is the point of the exercise? In fact, asked one participant, “How does this help us communicate authentically? Isn’t this exercise all about ‘pretending’?”

Risk or pretence – you choose

The reason people are nervous when they speak, the reason people are boring in their delivery, and the reason the audience daydreams through your presentation thinking about what’s for lunch all stem from the same thing. People are willing or unable to RISK expressing themselves. If you’re unwilling to express yourself, your presentation will be as dull as ditchwater. Guaranteed.


Imagine a scenario where you feel really comfortable – maybe having a coffee with some friends, and you’re talking about the holiday you just went on. When you tell that story without any nervousness or any restrictions whatsoever, you are expressive. You explain how flustered you felt at the airport when you thought you had left your passport at home – the way you express to a person how you felt when you were flustered, is by re-enacting the feeling of being flustered. You are giving the other person an insight into how it was to be you in that moment; and when they receive your words, they feel ‘flustered’ on your behalf. We call that state elicitation – you elicit a state in another person by being in that state yourself. Then when you finally get on the airplane in the nick of time after sprinting the entire length of the airport, and you express an emotion called ‘relief,’ your audience experiences ‘relief.’


The magic of it is that, in that moment, the two of you are truly connected. When you are willing to express yourself fully in this way, you can connect, not just with one person but with 20 people, 100 people, 500 people. That is how you get to captivate an entire audience.

The magic of speaking is the connection of two or more people

Now, here is an important question: If your goal is to be truly authentic when you present and yet you summon up an emotion as easily as trying on a jacket, are you actually being authentic? Aren’t you actually pretending?


Well, let’s look at what emotion actually is.


One web definition calls it “a strong feeling deriving from one's circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.”


The unfortunate truth is that we humans do typically think that our emotions are related to external circumstances, and that could not be further from the truth. In The Happiness Trap, author Russ Harris likens emotions to the weather, not something we have to react to – emotions come and go, and they do so more easily when we don’t attach significance to them.


The speaker training we practice is beneficial in more ways than one:

  • It enables you to summon up an emotion at will when speaking – which is useful to elicit that state in another person or an entire audience.

  • You can then summon up the emotion at will in your ordinary, everyday life – think how beneficial that would be, to be able to truly respond (in a considered, thoughtful, and beneficial way) rather than simply reacting (without any control).

The reality is that you have an entire range of emotions at your disposal all the time. In any given moment, you can choose how to feel. Someone offends you and you can choose to react with anger, or you can choose to consider their point of view and respond with compassion instead. In fact, there are a thousand different potential responses, but we are pre-programmed to choose the one that we are most used to. But imagine you had your full range of expression at your fingertips, and you could choose any one of those responses.


Check out Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions to consider all the expression that you have at your fingertips. This psychoevolutionary theory of emotion is considered one of the most influential classification approaches for general emotional responses. He classified eight primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy.




Expressing emotion is like gift-wrapping.

When you tell a story, consider that the emotion you wrap it in is like beautiful wrapping paper. You are giving a person a gift; and instead of just tossing it to them carelessly, you make an effort to present it in the most delightful and appealing way.






There is nothing authentic about ‘acting’ nervous


Make no mistake, there is nothing authentic about acting nervous. Maybe that is THE least authentic way you could possibly behave.


Please take this to heart: what I am telling you is that you already have everything you need to be an amazing speaker. You simply need to be willing to express an emotion such that you can elicit a state in another person. You don’t have to get everything right, you don’t have to remember your words perfectly, you can wave your hands and do a bunch of gestures that other professional speakers would tell you that you shouldn’t do.




In fact, I WANT you to wave your hands if that is what is true, natural, and authentic for you because speaking really is the fullest expression of who you truly are. Get this point: you will never have to pretend to be someone else ever again. I guess that’s why I consider that getting over your fear of public speaking is the best personal (and professional) development you can ever do.





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#emotions #expressions #publicspeaking #workshops #conferences #coaching