10 Things to Help Those Shaky Hands When Public Speaking. I was so bad at shaking my hands uncontrollably when public speaking that my nickname became Shaking Stephens (as detailed in my talk on TED.com here). The shaking went through my hands, into my shoulders and hips, and I involuntary became a kind of Irish salsa dancer. I’ve clocked up over 10,000 hours on stage, get paid to speak, have a comedy special, and have taught this to over 35,000 people so this advise works and is well tested.
The shaking usually subsides once you feel the talk is going well but sadly this can take 60 seconds or more, so rather than try to overcome it here are 10 things you can do to make sure your involuntary salsa dancing moves are less frequent than mine:
1- Start with the goal of hiding your shakes and not stopping them. Stick with me. More important stuff coming.
2- Memorise your talk using the memory palace technique so you don’t need notes. Holding paper magnifies you’re shakes and you need to avoid it…always. Here’s an article I wrote in Inc about the Memory Palace. A more detailed piece on my blog, and I recommend watching this great TED talk by Joshua Foer who wrote a great book on it.
3- If you can avoid it don’t hold a microphone. Always ask for a lapel mic or pac mic where you have the possibility. If you are really worried buy one to always use. If it’s a mic stand leave the mic in the stand until you are comfortable.Worst case hold the microphone with two hands. This is me holding onto one for dear life but the audience is none the wiser.
4- Don’t have a glass of water anywhere near you. Always a bottle and ideally one that is 3/4 full and open already. When you get nervous your throat gets dry and trying to drink from a glass or opening a full bottle with shaky hands is mission impossible.
5- Develop an opening line, personal story or piece of content that will get an early laugh and practice the first 30 to 60 seconds the most. Laughter is the strongest early signal that your audience can give you that your talk is going well. Applause is nice but it’s unlikely to come in a genuine fashion early in your talk (first 60 seconds). This positive reinforcement will reduce your adrenaline and help the shakes subside. Also realise you are most likely to go off the rails due to adrenaline at the start so practice this the most.
TED founder Chris Anderson talking about nervous public speaker Monica Lewinsky: “the moment her nervousness went away during her Ted Talk was when the audience erupted with laughter.” When you watch her talk, The Price of Shame, the first laugh comes 22 seconds in and the bigger laugh at 82 seconds.
6- If you don’t need slides don’t use them. This eliminates the need to hold a side advancer or advance slides manually via a computer. One less thing to have shaky hands when public speaking.
7- Keep your hands in your pockets if needed (at least for the start). A huge no no in the world of most bs corporate public speaking training, but you would be surprised how many comedians, storytellers and performers can crush it with their hands in their pockets. What you say always trumps how you say it, so don’t fear starting off with your hands hidden and brining them out when you feel less shaky. Yes, your talk looks more natural with hand movement but it’s not critical, especially at the start. This is me starting a Google Author Talk. Not quite ready to show them the hands yet!
8- Don’t Pet the Hamster. When nervous most people default to rubbing their hands together like they are petting some imaginary furry hamster. Once you unpocket them, try and speak with your hands in front of you, not flopped down to your side. Pretend your double fisting a couple of drinks that you’re going to spill if you put your arms down. Or just double fist a couple of beers. Granted, that might not make your presentation better, but eventually you won’t care anymore 😉
9- Remember public speaking is just speaking. Keep it conversational and incorporate as many personal stories as possible. My hands don’t shake when I’m telling stories to my friends. Once I forget there are strangers staring at me, get a few early laughs and start to talk like I do with my friends my heart rate reduces and the sharking subsides.
10- Tell yourself you’re excited, not nervous. Cliche and it doesn’t sound practical but it helps.
Just in case there is that one time it doesn’t work for you, make sure you take the above steps to eliminate things that show the audience your shakes, or make you more conscious about your shakes. To this day I shake when speaking but usually the audience can’t see it, which makes me less worried about my shaky hands when public speaking.