Louis C.K’s Secret to Taming Nervousness


Is your presentation driven by fear or by intent?

Louis C.K, a favorite comedian of mine, once said that his biggest performance mistake was allowing fear to drive him instead of intention.

That made sense to me because for a long time, I allowed my fear to drive my presentations. I was always worried about what my audience thought of me and my content.

VIDEO of Louis CK. Seen at 37.58-38.15

You know the feeling when your heart is beating in your chest, and your legs start to shake as you stand up to give a speech.

At that moment, fear can be your enemy or fear can be your friend. It all depends on your focus and awareness. A great quote to put this feeling into perspective is: “Everyone gets butterflies; the secret is to get them to fly in formation.”

Fear focuses our attention inward. It stifles us and makes us concerned about what our audience is thinking. As a result, our butterflies become scattered and fly out of formation. The more we try to cover up our fear, the worst the fear gets. It’s like trying to control the flight of butterflies by holding them in a confined space, the more you try, the more panicky they will get.

Intention focuses your attention outward. When our communication has a clear outcome for the audience, we channel our butterflies towards that result; you set the butterfly’s free to do their own thing. When we have a very clear goal for our audience to feel inspired, it comes across in our body language and facial movements, and our audience is more likely to respond the way we intend.

The best example of this I have seen is the Slam Poetry video “Knock, Knock” by Daniel Beaty.

A speech driven by fear is saying “what is my audience thinking of me?” A speech powered by intent is saying “what is my audience receiving from me?”

This presentation is amazing because the presenter’s thoughts, words, and actions are aligned as he is delivering his presentation. As he is speaking, it is clear that his purpose is to communicate HUMOR or INSPIRATION or ENTHUSIASM. His intention is clear with every stanza, and you feel the result of it.

A great exercise to practice intention is to ask yourself before you speak, what do I want my audience to think, feel and do?

Intention speaks louder than words

I was coaching a client who was originally from China and felt his voice was not engaging. He said that sometimes he fears that the audience would not understand him because English is his second language. Because of his fear, he constantly self-edits, self-doubts and stumbles on what he is saying.

I explained to him that his self-doubt and fear is probably contributing more to the audience’s lack of understanding than anything else.

After few sessions, he decided to participate in a humorous speech competition in his company’s Toastmasters group and won second place. He discovered that if his intention is leading the way, then people will laugh, respond, and follow him. Where before his fear was leading the way, and it was causing people to respond in confusion, and discomfort.


Louis C.K’s reflection on when his past performances flopped revealed that he was driven by fear and not the intention. Whether we are aware of it or not, your intention is always fluttering in the back of our mind, and it impacts the way you deliver. To be an effective speaker you have to know what we intend for your audience to think, feel and do. This helps us to channel nervousness and butterflies into a focused outcome that is pleasing to you and your audience.


About Author 

Nathan Swan is a Magnetic Speaking(R) certified trainer and speaker. He has won national awards in speech and debate and has been featured on the Huffington Post. He speaks nationally and internationally.