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.