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Your Shaky Hands Are More Common Than You Think

3 ways to redirect your nerves for good.
Your Shaky Hands Are More Common Than You Think
Image: Zachary Scott / Getty Images

Before I had ever preached a single sermon, I was a performance poet. I use that term quite loosely. There certainly were poems, but—at least back then, anyway—I was not much of a performer.

The reason? I was so nervous getting up to speak. My hands shook. They shook like crazy. It caused the pieces of paper I held to read from, to flap—loudly. It was like reading poems from behind a large goose. A sweet friend suggested, “Why don’t you paste those pages into a heavy book? That way we won’t hear them so much.” That did help. Well, it helped my poetry. It did nothing for my shaky hands.

In my first year of preaching, my hands did the same thing as they did at all those poetry shows. One Sunday, when I had a terrible attack of nerves, all that excessive hand and arm energy caused me to knock the pulpit over, right onto the church piano. DWANNNNG! it went. I was mortified.

As I lay in bed that night, I beat myself up. Why, oh why, can’t I just be normal? Why won’t my hands stop shaking when I speak? Have you berated yourself for shaky hands too?

What Happens to Our Bodies when We get Nervous?

Maybe before preaching you don’t get shaky hands, but you do experience other weird bodily sensations. Perhaps for you, it’s a racing heart, or a dry mouth. Perhaps you get shaky legs, or a feeling of electric jittery-ness. Why do these things happen to us nervous preachers?

There is a field of study called communication apprehension that investigates these very questions. Communication apprehension researchers examine the fear and anxiety that we experience before and during public speaking. One area of interest within those studies are our bodily responses to speaking in public. Those responses like a fast-paced heartbeat, increased perspiration, shakiness, and a dry mouth.

What these researchers have come to understand, is that our body begins to do these things, because it is preparing itself to do something difficult.[1] But hang on then, you might wonder, why don’t the non-nervous preachers have shaky hands or a racing heart like I do? Aren’t they doing something difficult too?

Do These Things Happen to Non-Nervous People too?

The short answer is—yes. They do get electric jittery-ness and racing hearts. These studies have found, that whether you are a nervous or a non-nervous speaker your physical responses to public speaking are almost the same. For example: a confident public speaker’s heart beats faster before speaking—just as yours might, or just as mine did before preaching that first year at my church.[2]

What does this mean? It means our shaky hands, or sweaty bodies are much more common than we think. We share those bodily responses with non-nervous people too. The only difference between us nervous and those non-nervous folk, is that when we feel jittery, we might say “I’m afraid,” or “I’m so nervous.” But when non-nervous people prepare themselves to speak, they identify these feelings as “Wow, I’m excited today.”[3]

What can We Do with this Information?

What can we do with this information, that nervous and non-nervous people both have the same strange bodily responses before preaching? Here are three suggestions I’ve come up with, for how we might reframe or redirect those shaky hands for good:

What if you renamed the way your body reacts before speaking?

What if, the next time you feel your heart racing, or hands shaking, instead of saying “I’m so nervous today,” you told yourself, “I’m excited today”?

I know that might feel like an attempt to deceive yourself, especially if you are nervous. However, to feel your heart racing and say, “I’m excited,” is not a lie. It’s more accurate than attributing these bodily sensations to nerves. As I’ve already said, these responses are a by-product of our body getting ready to give extra attention to the task before us. Similar physiological changes happen in professional athletes and musicians.

So, embrace these changes. Name them something new. Name them “I’m ready.” Name them, “Game on!”

What if you used that energy your body is giving you, into giving a stronger sermon?

Since your body is working so hard to give you extra energy and focus, what if you poured that energy into your sermon? How might you harness your nervous energy as you preach?

Sometimes we are so nervous that we shut our bodies down to hide our nerves. My friend’s suggestion to carry a heavy book was helpful in disguising the nervous energy I had when I read my poetry. But it wasn’t helpful in harnessing it. What that heavy book did, was weigh me down. I’ve seen many preachers do the same to their bodies. They try to weigh down any physical signs of nervousness while in the pulpit, to appear calm and composed.

Perhaps you do this, too. But it doesn’t help your preaching. It might stop your hands from shaking but prevent you from moving or making gestures while you speak. Maybe your face seems calm, but you lose all the wonderful expression your face has in everyday life. Maybe your voice doesn’t go high or squeaky, but you can’t express the enthusiasm fully you have for God’s good news.

If you want to free yourself, try doing what Haddon Robinson suggests in his Biblical Preaching. When Robinson wrote about our bodies having extra energy, he suggested planning to make one large gesture near the beginning of your sermon, to let some of that electric energy loose. One big stomp, one big arms-stretched-wide, one big jump, clap, or shout. Another option would be to tell a story you are excited to tell, right in the introduction, and give yourself all the freedom in the world to tell it with as much gusto and energy you have.

These gestures, at the outset of your sermon, are like turning on a tap to let some of the pressure out. They just might free you from blocking the extra energy that your body is creating to make your sermon better.

What if You Remembered You Are Not Alone?

I think one of the most embarrassing things about being a nervous preacher is the tendency to feel like the only one. I preach in a PhD program now, and one of my fellow students is the coolest cucumber preacher I have ever met. He glides in and out of the pulpit as if there were wheels under his shoes. Meanwhile, I’m knocking over water bottles, opening my Bible to the wrong page, shouting where I should be whispering. I usually end up thinking—Why can’t I be cool like everybody else?

But everybody else is not my fellow student. “Everybody else,” is a lot more like me. On a Sunday morning, all over the country, there are preachers whose hands are shaking, or hearts are racing, or bodies are perspiring, just like mine. Just like yours. Many, many preachers. Thousands and thousands of preachers. Some of them might be calling these reactions “nerves,” and others “excitement,” but isn’t it comforting to know we are all going through the same thing? That our shaky hands are a lot more common than we think?

I don’t know about you, but that takes the edge off my shaky hands. Instead of making me feel ashamed, and alone, and weird, it makes me feel like one of many. One of many preachers with a body that God designed, with all the systems in place to hype me up to preach the gospel with gusto. Thinking like this makes my shaky hands feel almost … purposeful.

And it makes me feel not quite as embarrassed, too. Well, except for that time I knocked the pulpit into the piano. Nothing is ever going to stop me from feeling embarrassed about that.

[1] James C. McCroskey, An Introduction to Rhetorical Communication, 9th ed. (Boston, MA: Pearson, 2006), 46.

[2] M.J. Beatty and R. R. Behnke, “Effects of Public Speaking Trait Anxiety and Intensity of Speaking Task on Heart Rate During Performance,” Human Communication Research 18 (1991): 147-76.

[3] James C. McCroskey, An Introduction to Rhetorical Communication, 9th ed. (Boston, MA: Pearson, 2006), 46.

Alison Gerber is the former pastor of Second Congregational Church in Peabody MA, now a PhD in Preaching student at Truett Seminary/Baylor University in Waco TX.

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