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.

3 Comments

  1. Hi Nick,
    Happy New Year to you, thank you for your work and for this blog.
    I had a soldier on one of my courses who said “I’d rather be fighting the Taliban than do public speaking”. Public speaking fear stops so many people from wanting to do speeches, speak up at meetings or even get married. (Somebody on my course hadn’t asked his girlfriend to marry him for 15 years because he was scared of the wedding speech)
    So I’d like to add a couple of things to your insights if you will allow me.
    You talk about “standing in front of a couple of hundred people all of whom are looking at you – seems dangerous”. I agree with you that it reaches back to dangerous times. However I want to talk about something that is happening right there in the room in front of the speaker.
    The audience has changed into a different listening mode from the one we are really used to. Normally in everyday social situations, we are listened to in a conversational way and we get micro-signals of approval; the nod, the “gosh, that’s interesting”, our body language mirrored back to us. The listening in conversations is active. However when we are standing in front of an audience the listening becomes passive. They listen to us with blank faces (including bored, angry looking, listening with their eyes closed). Our ancient flight, fight, freeze system is great at over-seeing threat. We survived ancient times because of that bias towards spotting threat.
    And Blank faces look threatening and judging.
    But what we fail to understand is the difference between conversation and speaking to large groups. The audience doesn’t have to look after the speaker like you do when you are having a conversation. So an important part of understanding stage fright is that when you speak in public, you enter the land of non-approval or not many approval signs. The answer is not to rush to the most friendly face. The answer is to learn to LOVE blank faces or at least get used to them. They are just normal (for an audience) listening faces. If you get used to connecting with non-approval faces then public speaking becomes very different. My work is with people who are scared of public speaking. I run 60 courses a year and understanding that the blank faces are not judging us, they are just listening, helps people hugely. It takes practice to learn.
    So a related tip to loving blank faces is to notice what you are like when you are in the audience. Are you active? Do you nod a lot? Or do you just listen. Learn what you and others do (or not do) when you are in the audience and that will help you as a speaker.
    The final tip is to learn your public skills in a place where there is no pressure on the outcome. A safe place to explore what gets in the way and de-sensitise the brain to the perceived threat. So find a group or course to practise being in front of people. I’m not talking about that tip “practice practice, practice” because that can really lock in the fear and make us more scared. I’m talking about wise practice. Practise where you are learning and getting help.
    All the best for 2016
    John

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