"Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering." -Yoda
Stage fright, the fear of performing in front of an audience, can literally and metaphorically hold you back. For many people it’s a massive deal; there’s even a Face Your Fears day. Stage fright can be worse than flying, bats, financial ruin and even dying for some people. This debilitating, anxiety rousing emotion is linked with our tendency to overestimate the impact of our audience and the underlying psychology of exposing ourselves to people, though there are other explanations, as well. This vulnerability produces both emotional and physical symptoms; dry mouth, ‘butterflies’, a pounding heart, diarrhoea and sweating are common among sufferers of stage fright. According to the mighty Jay-Z, as reported in NPR, stage fright is the reason why rappers grab their crotches, it’s not just some attempt at titillating the public -well, there’s some breaking news for you right there. The reason stage fright causes all these is because the body’s reaction to such anxiety is to trigger the sympathetic nervous system, leading to ‘flight or fight’ responses, an evolutionary mechanism to promote survival, which sets off a host of physiological processes.
The first published account of turning to jelly in front of an audience is that of Moses from the Old Testament, who didn’t feel too confident about leading an entire nation out of Egypt. Size of task aside, he was no great orator and, in fact, he was said to suffer from a stutter. Unsurprisingly, Moses experienced what today would be referred to as ‘stage fright’.
There have been numerous documented cases of high profile people who suffer from stage fright. According to Wikipedia, actor Hugh Grant only managed to get through a film by dosing himself with the drug lorazepam. Pop star Robbie Williams was forced to cancel his Stadium tour because of severe stage fright. Other well-known people who suffer or have suffered from stage fright include the actor and singer Barbara Streisand, the actor Mel Gibson, singers Mariah Carey and Adele, world famous investor Warren Buffet and the late great writer and poet Maya Angelou.
The good news is that stage fright is conquerable, as asserted by famously introverted author Susan Cain. Despite having spent much of her life being afraid of public speaking, Cain has now delivered hundreds of talks to large audiences. And who’s to say that you can’t do the same? There are several, highly effective techniques you can use to help you manage your fear of public speaking, some of which are described below. So if speaking in front of an audience of hundreds is not your natural milieu, take heart that you can overcome this fear.
1. Convert Your Anxiety Into Excitement
Whatever you do, whatever anyone says to you, don’t try to ‘calm down’. Fighting with yourself to calm down is a counterproductive response: you’re trying to calm yourself, not fight with yourself. Instead, focus on the reasons why you’re doing the talk in the first place. Channel your nervousness into excitement about the opportunity to communicate an important message to your audience. There is scientific grounding to this reappraisal of nervousness as excitement. In short, should you do feel the pangs of panic, divert your energies and your thoughts into what is more important: the messages you are trying to communicate. Tell yourself that you are excited about the opportunity to share your good news, and focus on that.
2. Don’t Practice Alone
Practicing alone will do little to calm your nerves, because you are doing nothing to replicate the real thing. Try as much as possible to practice in front of a small, supportive audience. And try to practice as often as you can. Small groups are good because in these environments you are likely to feel every stare, every frown and every questioning look: a great way to ‘jump into the deep end’ which will help you confront your worst fears. Over time, you’ll become accustomed to these situations and their paralysing effect on you will dissipate. You’ll gain strength, courage and confidence. To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, you’ll be able to say to yourself the following: “I’ve been through the worst. Bring on the next thing.”
3. Nail the Introduction
According to public speaking experts, it is the introduction that sets the tone for the entire presentation. So if you can nail your introduction, the rest of your presentation will likely be well received. Moreover, studies have also shown that anxiety levels are highest at the start of a presentation and drop significantly thereafter. Therefore, if you manage to deliver a great introduction you’ll have got through the most stressful part of your presentation.
4. Get Yourself Physically and Mentally Relaxed
Some people find it beneficial to expend as much physical energy as possible to get rid of nervous energy. So if you enjoy exercise, fit in some gym time or go for a run around the block before your presentation. To reduce mental tension, consider visiting the venue where you’ll be giving your talk. If this is not possible, arrive very early at the venue and get familiar with the acoustics and equipment of the facility. Some speakers recommend pacing the stage to get familiar with its boundaries, or sitting in the seats to get a sense of what the audience will experience.
It’s also a good idea to meet and chat with some of the people who will be attending your talk beforehand. Not only is this a good way to reassure yourself that you will be addressing regular people, but you can also reference them by name during your presentation. This audience connection not only has the effect of ‘humanising’ your talk, but it also gives your audience the sense that you are one of them. To you, the audience transitions from being an amorphous mass of executioners to a group of colleagues. If you are unable to meet audience members before your talk, plan to interview them well in advance of the talk. This way, you can source useful information that you can refer to within your talk:
“My conversations with John, Stuart and Rex have confirmed that our systems have been dysfunctional for some time now…”
5. Plan How you Will Deal With Possible Mistakes
You’re not perfect, so you will make mistakes. You’ll trip over your words. You may even trip over on stage. What’s important is how you respond to your mistakes because you will be judged on this. So plan how you will deal with any mistakes you make during your presentation. Whatever you do, don’t treat your mistakes as unforgivable errors because if you do, then this is how the audience will also treat them.
To summarise these tips, the secrets to overcoming fears of public speaking are to convert your anxiety into a more useful emotion, for example excitement; to prepare yourself physically, mentally and emotionally for your talk on stage; and to find a way to connect with your audience. How do you minimise your fears of public speaking? Share any tips in the comment box below.