Picture the scenario. You’ve got a big speech to make. Or maybe you’re delivering a presentation to a group of colleagues. Either way, you want to make a good impression.
But you’re worried that you’re going to screw up. You might fluff your lines, or get the tone wrong and come across like Alan Partridge. Or, perhaps worst of all, you open your mouth and nothing comes out.
Stage fright is a universal problem. Everyone from political leaders to rock stars, to Oscar-winning actors suffer from it – and company CEOs are no different.
At its heart, stage fright is about the fear of failure. The fear of not being able to deliver on a promise, and thus being judged harshly by your audience. This is what happens in a key scene from the movie 8 Mile, when the character played by rapper Eminem, Jimmy ‘B-Rabbit’ Smith, ‘chokes’ during a rap battle.
It may also be riven by imposter syndrome – the feeling that you’ve been ‘getting away with it’ for too long, and that this could be the moment when the veil is lifted and you are exposed in front of an audience.
The key to overcoming stage fright is preparation, and while there is a wealth of advice online and in print about how to reduce the effects of stage fright – from the psychology profession, from the acting world, from business, and even neuroscience – a few simple guidelines could help transform your approach to public speaking.
You could take a lead from another of Steve Coogan’s creations – obnoxious sales rep Gareth Cheeseman – and give yourself a pep talk in the mirror. But is yelling ‘You’re a tiger – RRAAAWWR!’ really going to damp down that sense of rising panic?
Fight or flight
What all techniques for addressing stage fright have in common is that they seek to control the ‘fight or flight’ response that often accompanies scary or stressful scenarios.
On a purely physical level, as you step out in front of an audience, your body is likely to be producing the hormone adrenaline as part of that fight or flight response. Adrenaline will make your heart beat faster, may cause your palms to become sweaty, and could also make you feel light-headed or dizzy.
As the publication Psychology Today notes, this form of social anxiety affects about 1 in 4 of people who are contemplating public speaking. It can cause additional symptoms ranging from a dry mouth, to feelings of nausea, breathlessness, changes of vision, stuttering, and even facial tics or shaking limbs. When talking, your voice might also rise in pitch and you may end up talking too quickly.
It’s not uncommon for sufferers to end up racing for the bathroom ahead of a performance. And in addition to the physical manifestations of stage fright that can afflict you during your delivery, there are psychological challenges: time becomes elastic, where a few seconds can feel like hours; your mind goes blank, you can’t remember what you wanted to say; some people even feel like they’re having an out-of-body experience.
As neuroscientist Anwesha Banerjee argued in her TED Talk from 2019, one way to effectively manage stage fright is to get into the habit of confronting it.
By continually focusing on our fear of public speaking we are engaging in ‘negative reinforcement’, she says. The only way to halt this process, and dial down the fear, is to confront rather than avoid this stimulus. Instead of trying to avoid stage fright altogether, get more accustomed to it. Overcoming that negative reinforcement is not about ‘getting over’ stage fright or expecting to banish it, says Banerjee, but is instead about getting used to it.
‘Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright’
In an extract from her 2015 book ‘Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright’, published in Prospect magazine, journalist Sara Solovitch details her attempts to overturn a lifelong fear of performing (in her case, on the piano) in front of an audience, while exploring the origins of stage fright.
Solovitch quotes another neuroscientist, UCLA professor Michael Fanselow, who also advocates “exposure therapy” in order to “get into this positive feedback loop”.
Having given herself a year to explore various therapies to help her beat stage fright, Solovitch gives a piano recital. When she finally overcomes her reservations to listen to the recording of the concert she says: “I was surprised. I heard some lapses, yes. But I also heard expressiveness. I heard assertiveness. I heard a voice. What I heard was me. I was not a professional, and I was hardly perfect. But I was striving for excellence, and sometimes I attained it.”
This is a perfect example of what overcoming stage fright is about. It’s not about becoming a world-beating orator. It’s not about delivering a perfect performance. It’s about being able to express yourself in your own voice, share your knowledge and experience, and get more comfortable with yourself as a speaker.
As this article from entertainment trade magazine Back Stage notes – the great majority of performers on stage and screen have experienced this fear, and many live with stage fright their entire careers, but have found ways to cope with it. Equally regular public speakers such as company CEOs can find strategies to manage their fear and keep overcoming it.
At Dynamic Presenting, we believe some of the lessons taken from the world of professional acting and performing can be some of the most effective in tackling stage fright. Here are some the key methods for dealing with stage fright.
All of the guides to public speaking and overcoming stage fright you see will emphasise the importance of preparation and practice. Actors rehearse, rehearse, rehearse what they are going to say and do onstage or onscreen for weeks before a performance. Make sure you are well prepared and know your material thoroughly. You don’t need to learn your presentation word for word, you just need to know the salient points and the order in which you want to deliver them. That will give you a structure for you to then talk naturally around those key points.
Focusing on your material not only reiterates confidence in your knowledge and abilities, it takes the focus away from the abstraction of an audience to the specifics of what you want to say. If you are thinking about what you want to share with your audience, you are less likely to fixate on what they think of you and your delivery. If you have rehearsed your delivery of it, you’ll be less likely to stumble over difficult passages or to rush your delivery.
Don’t kid yourself you can wing it. Some people are able to extemporise at will on any given topic – they’re typically in the minority. The more you ground yourself in substance of your presentation, the less likely you are to be lost for words or afraid of how you might be received,
Some commentators also stress the value of getting to know the space and even the audience before you deliver an address. Certainly, being in a familiar environment can help with nerves, and as former UK Prime Minister Liz Truss demonstrated, knowing how to get out of room as well as getting into it can be very useful. And knowing that you have friends and allies in the audience can give you courage. But focusing on your material and rehearsing your delivery of it are paramount.
Another universal theme in tackling stage fright is visualisation. Preparing for the worst, while aiming for the best will improve both your confidence and resilience. Visualise yourself giving a hugely successful performance. See yourself relaxed and smiling before you take the stage, then confidently walking to the microphone, and calmly delivering your address as the audience listens intently to your message. It may sound hokey, but practicing that visualisation can help to instil the sub-conscious belief that the outcome is going to be overwhelmingly positive.
Equally, expecting the worst can be a powerful psychological aid to overcoming fear. You will probably make mistakes. But what’s the worst that could happen? You fluff a line or mispronounce a word and maybe somebody in the audience laughs. You can acknowledge the error, even make a joke of it, or just correct yourself and move on. If you can see yourself in advance, bouncing back from your mistakes, they will seem less momentous in the live performance.
Actors and singers always undertake breathing exercises before rehearsals and before performances.
When we are feeling stressed or nervous we tend to breathe more shallowly, breathing in sharply and then not breathing out properly. This can result in you feeling lightheaded due to a lack of oxygen. Equally, when we are panicked we can end up hyperventilating – breathing too quickly and too deeply, so that you end up exhaling more carbon dioxide than usual, which can also produce lightheadedness or a feeling of shortness of breath.
It sounds overly simplistic, but training yourself to breathe slowly and deeply, using your diaphragm, will help with both physical and mental relaxation.
Before any situation where you are potentially feeling anxious or apprehensive take 15 minutes to sit somewhere quiet and do some deep breathing to calm your nerves.
Equally, taking a few deep breaths before you step up to make your speech can make your feel calmer and more relaxed, and if you find yourself getting anxious during your presentation, or you find your mouth is running away with you and you’re gabbling rather speaking, taking a moment to draw a slow, deep breathe, can anchor you and give you the space to recover your poise and begin again.
If you’ve done all of the above and you are still wracked with nerves ahead of a performance, trying changing your state. Doing some physical exercise – star jumps, yoga moves, walking or jogging along a corridor – will get you breathing more deeply and may get the adrenaline flowing. This can reduce the chances of feeling breathless or experiencing an adrenaline spike at the moment where you are getting ready to perform.
Making an adaptation to your current state can help you focus, snap you out of any feelings of fear or helplessness, help regulate your breathing, and calm any physical tremors.
If you’ve prepared well, your material should be at your fingertips, and your notes will help structure your delivery. Rather than sitting there thinking about whether you can remember it all, talk to someone on the phone about something completely different, chat to someone in the room, remind yourself that you are already an effective communicator and that you know how to connect with an audience.
As the quote that is often, but perhaps spuriously, attributed to Mark Twain goes: “There are two types of speakers: those who are nervous and those who are liars.”
So rest assured that whenever you speak in public, there are many before (including some of your audience perhaps) who have felt the same way.
If you practice the four techniques above you will feel less fearful and much more relaxed and confident. You might never completely lose the sensation of stage fright, but the more often you confront that fear, the more you experience the satisfaction of having successfully engaged with an audience, the less anxiety you feel and the more relaxed you will become about speaking in public.