Magazine excerpt: Embrace your inner butterflies

Paul McGee on how to overcome nerves before public speaking.

As a presentation and communication coach, I’m often asked how I get rid of my nerves before speaking. Well, I’m not actually sure you want to. Here’s the deal: the key is to learn how to handle your nerves, not be strangled by them. So how can you do that?

Ways to manage your nerves

One of my delegates said to me recently, “I’m OK speaking to people if I have a pint in my hand.” Well that might calm his nerves, but I’m not sure it enhances his credibility. So here are seven insights and tips that will help you manage your nerves.

Remember, nerves are normal

This is especially the case if you don’t present regularly or if you’re presenting a topic for the fi rst time to people you’re keen to impress. You see, we humans like to feel in control, so going into a situation that is either new or unfamiliar will inevitably cause a little tension.

That’s the primitive part of our brain just doing its job. It is keeping us on our toes and alert to the potential challenges of a new situation. Its release of adrenalin and cortisol is its way of preparing us. And it is these hormones, when released into your system, that cause us to feel nervous and experience feelings often described as butterflies in your stomach.

We humans like to feel in control, so going into a situation that is either new or unfamiliar will inevitably cause a little tension.

Now rather than fight such feelings, it is probably best to accept they’re normal. It is your body’s natural response to the situation it is facing. As author Rob Bell says, “make friends with the butterflies”. Nerves are an indication that you’re engaging with life. Embrace them. Don’t fight them.

However, the word ‘nerves’ has so much negative baggage attached to it. So here’s an idea. What’s happening when you’re nervous is that adrenalin is being pumped around your body – so perhaps use the word ‘adrenalised’ to describe how you’re feeling rather than ‘nervous.’

This word has more positive connotations attached to it. Yes, you may still feel nervous, but you’re using a more empowering word to describe your feelings, and that in itself can help increase your confi dence. 

Manage your movies

The brain is an incredible piece of hardware. However, be aware that it cannot tell the difference between a real or vividly imagined event. So if you imagine things going wrong in your mind before the presentation, your brain will respond as if the scenario is actually taking place – a condition sometimes referred to as anticipatory stress.

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Again, let me emphasise that this is a normal response. However, here’s the good news. You can influence the intensity and vividness of the movie in your mind. Th e 3D technicolour version of things going wrong is definitely not helpful.

If you’re tempted to futurise the presentation going badly in your mind, how about imagining it in a fuzzy or blurred focus and in black and white? Or even better still, imagine the presentation going well. A positive projection of your future event could actually result in you feeling calmer.

A technique I’ve used if you find your mind running away with itself and creating its own personal disaster movie is to remember this: you’re the director of the movies in your mind.

And you can always shout “cut”.


About the author

Paul McGee is a bestselling author, international speaker, and communication coach. His most recent book is How to Speak so People Really Listen (Capstone, 2016). For more information, please visit


This is an abridged version of a piece from December’s TJ magazine. To get all the public speaking tips and more great premium content subscribe to the magazine here


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