If stage fright makes your life miserable before, during, and even after a speech, then it’s time to make 2016 the year you banish this demon once and for all.
First of all, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you have it worse than everyone else, or that speaker that you admire is lucky because she doesn’t get stage fright.
Everyone gets stage fright to a greater or lesser degree, and that includes the politicians, actors, and celebrities who make it look so easy when they’re on stage, sounding conversational, looking relaxed, and appearing to be completely in command of their surroundings.
Everyone gets stage fright, but no one has to suffer because of it. Following are some techniques and insights that will help you at least learn to live with it, and perhaps even embrace it enthusiastically.
First of all, you need to understand what stage fright is. It’s an ancient survival technique that kicks into high gear when your body is presented with a situation that seems dangerous.
Standing in front of a couple hundred people all of whom are looking at you – seems dangerous. As one writer noted, in ancient times, when we stood up in front of the tribe like that, it was either to be made leader or to be sacrificed – and both are potentially dangerous.
So your body is responding to potential danger by revving into high gear. It’s getting ready to respond more quickly, think faster, and escape more readily, than normal. Your heart may beat quickly, you breathe in shallow gasps, you may start to sweat as your metabolism speeds up – all of the familiar symptoms are merely signs that your body is going into hyperdrive.
And that’s a good thing. Don’t you want your body to work better under pressure?
Of course, the problem is that those symptoms are often uncomfortable – the fast-beating heart can be alarming, the clammy palms can feel unpleasant – and so you interpret them as bad.
But what if you interpreted them as good signs of your increasing efficiency? When you put your foot down on the accelerator pedal of a high-powered sports car, it leaps into action. It burns more fuel, it makes more noise, and it goes faster.
The experience inside the engine is loud and smelly, but the result is a fast ride down the highway.
Think of your adrenaline response in the same way.
Now it all depends on how severe your fight-or-flight response reaction is. If it’s too severe, you’ll have difficulty thinking clearly and speaking sanely. That’s because your body is gearing you up for either fighting or fleeing, not speaking.
So here are some steps you can take to get that extreme reaction under control while you’re in the long-term process of redefining your adrenaline response as a good thing.
First of all, learn to breathe deeply. I’ve described “belly breathing” many times before in this blog, but here’s a quick summary now. You imagine that your body is an eyedropper, and you expand the bulb – your stomach – as you take air in. The idea is to imagine you’re filling the bulb – your stomach – not your lungs. In fact, don’t move your shoulders at all. Do all the work and make all the movement come from your belly.
Then, tense those abdominal muscles gently in order to hold the air in, as if you were getting ready to jump in the water. Let the air dribble slowly out as you speak. After you run out of air, repeat. Never speak if your lungs are empty. That will increase your feeling of panic.
Second, address the mental chatter that goes with the feelings of nervousness with positive self-talk. Invent a mantra for yourself and your presentations – I’m happy to get a chance to speak in front of this audience and I’m feeling confident – whatever makes sense to you. Repeat this endlessly every time before the speech that you start to get worried. The key is to drown out the fear with the mantra – always.
Finally, when you’re actually speaking, look at individual members of the audience and talk to them for, say, 30 seconds at a time, as if you were having a conversation. Many people find that this simple step is enough to help them banish stage fright forever.
If you practice these three steps, most of your stage fright will vanish, most of the time. And you’ll know why you have the remainder – and you may even look forward to having it.