In one of the Taoist stories I am going to tell this Thursday in Willesden Green, a dialogue between Confucius and one of his students is particularly relevant to public speaking.
Confucius tells his student that if he is playing a game in which only scrap pieces of glass are at stake, the student will play skilfully. But if something of value, such as the student's expensive belt buckle is at stake, he will start to fumble. And if all his money and possessions are at stake, he will become very clumsy.
"It is not that you have lost your skills", says Confucius to the student. "It is because you've become so flustered by what's going on in the world outside that you have lost your calmness inside. Lose your inner stillness and you will fail in everything you do.... "
I love this story, even though the conclusion seems a bit frustrating a first sight for the nervous public speaking apprentice. When you are struggling with nervousness, telling you that the secret is to stay calm is not very helpful!
However, it is important to notice that you have not lost your skills when becoming clumsy, If you know how to speak with friends or family, you already have most of the basic skills for public speaking . You know how to make eye contact, you know how to pause for effect when you're telling a joke, you know how to change your voice when you repeat words that others have said etc etc...
Maybe the only skill we really need to learn is to structure efficiently. Body language, vocal variety, facial expression, social engagement are already known (unless you are autistic, in which case you really have to learn this skills)
For most people, the first and main problem is more about maintaining enough inner peace than learning new skills.
How to do that? Practise practise practise indeed, but not only. Inner calm can be cultivated. If Confucius does not say how, maybe that's because it's not necessary. All we need to do is to value this inner stillness to cultivate it. Valuing is nurturing.
We can use a positive affirmation like "I am calming down" when needed. By the way, don't use a positive affirmation such as "I am calm" when you are nervous, it's a lie, and if you lie to yourself, you are not going to trust yourself. Instead, say "I am calming down" and breathe out. The more we cultivate this most precious inner calm in our lives, the more we will be able to bring it with us on stage. If you live like a nervous wreck, chances are you'll be a nervous wreck on stage as well. The good news is that cultivating calmness is just the opposite of hard work.