Monday, December 22, 2008

The Nervous Rabbi (a.k.a. “I hate public speaking”)

I’ve been speaking publicly for twenty years or more.

I started with divrei torah at my shul’s auxiliary minyan and shiurim when the shul of my childhood was without a rabbi. Since then I’ve been an NCSY advisor, a baal keriah/teacher in a Shabbos shul, a rabbinic intern who was given plenty of chances to speak, and, of course, a pulpit rabbi now in his twelfth year. I teach four to seven formal public classes per week, in addition to Daf Yomi, to groups of all kinds. I should be pretty comfortable with this speaking thing by now.

And yet, I get nervous before I speak. I think there are three reasons, all of which are resolvable:

1) A lot has to do with familiarity of setting. Example: I am, unfortunately, pretty comfortable with funerals, thanks to my familiarity with them.

2) Some of it has to do with confidence in what I have to say; if I feel good about what I’ve prepared for a Shabbos morning speech, I tend to be less nervous.

But then there are occasions when familiarity and confidence in my material are irrelevant. Divrei torah, committee reports, awards and installations… I officiated at a wedding yesterday and found myself incredibly nervous, even though I was among wonderful friends and ecstatic about having the chance to be mesader kiddushin. So why was I nervous?

3) I think I get nervous when I’m distracted, when I’m not focussing on what I am saying, when I’m not absorbed in the thought.

On any given Shabbos morning, there are many subplots afoot in shul – visiting guests and relatives, political issues, taking care of my kids as they daven, people going through life changes – and those subplots tend to percolate in my mind as I am getting up to speak.

The same is true on any occasion, from the simple to the sublime. At a meeting I might also be thinking about a class I’m developing; at a bar mitzvah, a thought about something that happened at minyan that morning might intrude into my mind. I just have a lot of thoughts vying for attention.

It’s like living in shmoneh esreih, all the time.

Many people are like this, I think, and particularly those who have grown up multi-tasking every moment of their lives.

The result is that I am less “in the moment,” less focussed, less able to make an absorbing connection with my material. That may also be why I don’t get nervous when teaching a class – because I tend to prepare material that requires real thought, and I am forced to think carefully in order to explain it to the group.

The upshot: I can solve my nervousness, if this is really the issue:
1) If it’s unfamiliarity – Review what needs to be done, mentally, until I am comfortable;
2) If it’s lack of confidence in my material – Work on it until it’s good;
3) And if it’s distraction – Take a minute to clear everything from my mind, before speaking.

Simple, but it sounds like a plan.


  1. I have learned a lot about public speaking over the last few years...

    preparation is absolutely key - if you know what you are going to say, and plan it all out then that's a huge step right there. As you plan your words, keep your audience in mind, who they are, what their level of understanding is of your subject matter (i.e. a sermon given to a congregation would be different than a lecture given to your colleagues...

    Writing out your speach, not just notes, but the whole thing, really helps - then you can work out the bugs...

    other pointers - be aware of your "ummms"...ummm is your trying to find the next words to takes away from the speech, and really does make the speaker sound less than confident and more unprepared, even when they are...

    i got lots! but i will stop there...

  2. I have made most of my living giving presentations in front of groups of people. No matter how familiar I am I often find that the time before my talk is filled with a bit of anxiety.

    Most of the time once I get going I am fine. I think that you are right about being distracted. If I have too many things on my mind I find myself more anxious than I should be.

    But if I clear my head it tends to calm me down.

  3. Shorty-
    Thanks for your comments. I agree on all points, and I actually overprepare, write everything out (for speeches, not classes) and have never really been beset by the umm-bug.
    But the point I think I'm trying to make here is that there are other factors, having nothing to do with your material, which will affect anxiety - and, for me, one of those is the level of mental focus vs. distraction.


  4. I can totally understand the feelings of anxiety when your mind is just not "into it". I have had to give classes when things were not going well personally. It is probably the biggest thing i had to do - hide everything i was feeling. I worried maybe i was transparent, and not doing a good job...then someone taking my class (who was aware of my situation) noted how well the class went - i guess shoving everything in my back pocket, so to speak, worked! What i did was imagining putting all that emotional "stuff" in a bag and putting it away. I would say, i will deal with you, but just not right now. everytime those thougths came back, i would imagine closing that drawer again. Its an image that worked for me...