The power of nerves

Written by
Changeboard Team

11 Nov 2014

11 Nov 2014 • by Changeboard Team

Butterflies and nerves

“Hello James. Have I caught you at a convenient moment?”

Sounds so simple doesn’t it?

And it is.

Or at least, it should have been.

But even now, I shudder at the memory.

Fresh from completing a postgraduate degree at the London School of Oriental & African Studies, I was eight weeks into my first job. I’d secured a research analyst role at a top blue-chip executive search firm based in St James’s. Battles with the aesthetic nuances of Mandarin Chinese were a distant memory. They were also a picnic compared to what I was being asked to do by my boss…

Make a phone call.

To someone very, very senior.

Is it just me or at times like these, do you also get the butterflies?

To make matters worse, my colleagues knew I was petrified. Oh, the joy of open-plan offices. While I psyched myself up with desktop calisthenics, colleagues pretended to carry on with their work.

 I ran the opening line through my mind once again…

“Hello James. Have I caught you at a convenient moment?”

Deep breath; clutch phone; here we go…

“Hello John, uhm, where have you caught yourself?”

Now that’s an embarrassing question. Especially when talking to a man you’ve never met before.

As I said, I still shudder at the memory.

Hallmark of leadership

The ability to communicate effectively poses a challenge for even the most experienced professional. To do so under extreme pressure is, I suggest, a hallmark of leadership.

That phone call back in October 1999 proved to be a defining moment in my career.  

All I wanted was to be forgotten.

So, to improve, I joined a public speaking club. Seven years later, I stood on the stage in Mullingar, Ireland, as winner of the 2006 Great Britain & All-Ireland Championship of Public Speaking.

And all I wanted was to be remembered.

So, what made the difference?

Achieve impact

Too many professionals struggle to achieve impact in critically important business situations. Maybe it’s the client presentation, the new business pitch or, dare I say it, perhaps even the phone call.

This is not because they haven’t prepared. Nor is it due to a lack of ability or intelligence.

It’s because they’re nervous.

Know the feeling?

The heart pounds…breathing runs shallow… face flushes… mind goes blank…and panic sets in.

In workshops I’ve run over recent years, I’ve lost count of the number of people who worry about their nerves.

Note: worry about their nerves.

As if somehow it’s a crime. Something to feel embarrassed about.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

To feel ‘nervous’ is entirely natural. It’s human. Biological. Even helpful. What’s profoundly unhelpful is the label we use to describe the experience: ‘NERVES’.

In fact, it’s adrenalin.

Designed to help you perform at your best in such circumstances, these ‘symptoms of nervousness’ can be your most powerful ally.

I learnt this long ago when entering a speech contest. Backstage beforehand, my mentor took me to one side:

“How are you feeling?”

“Nervous as hell.”

“Good. Now go out there and sock it to ‘em.”