Overcoming Stage Fright

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • My previous job as a university academic required me to stand in front of large groups of comparative strangers and deliver lectures. I did this every week for several years. Eventually the task became so familiar and predicable that any nervousness experienced tended to relate to fears about faulty equipment, or whether last minute room changes would be picked up by students.


    Once every semester all that would change. It didn't relate to my own performance but to that of the students, who by then I'd go to know, and who had to deliver their own presentations. I think I used to try to be anxious on their behalf but I portrayed composure and tranquility - a smiling and beneficent tutor who only wanted them to try their best whilst recognizing this was a difficult time for many of them.

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    And so the presentations would begin. Some would attempt to break the world speed-speaking record in order end the pain. Others would bury their faces in a paper and solemnly read every word, often repeatedly tripping over the same sentences, thus prolonging the agony for everyone. Yet others appeared completely unaffected. It was as if they had an innate ability to construct a well organized, entertaining and confident presentation, with no prior experience.


    I don't know about the students, but at the end of it all I was completely wrung out. I realized the problem lay in confidence as well as lack of familiarity and preparation skills, but there was no scope with the program to address this. That aside, it says a great deal about the relationship between people who ‘perform' and those who listen. The audience wants the person to succeed. They want to feel comfortable and they want the presenter to feel comfortable. Any pain felt by the presenter is invariably, in some form, felt by their audience.


    Stage fright is the term we most often associate with performance related anxiety. Although it reveals itself in different ways, people's fears are really quite consistent. Researchers at the University of Manitoba, Canada, found the greatest fear is showing signs of anxiety such as trembling or having a shaky voice. Fear of the mind going blank, freezing and being unable to continue, saying or doing something embarrassing or saying something stupid, were also highly rated.


    In principle, there isn't such a difference between talking to one person and talking to several. Granted, more of a two-way interaction is expected with just two people, but beyond this the difference between say speaking to two or two hundred is a matter of scale. Whether we talk to one person or to many we engage in a process where both the speaker and those who listen have goals. In a successful delivery, goals are met, but if anxiety inhibits the process neither the speaker nor the audience is satisfied.  Anxiety is contagious and it results in frustration.


    Stage fright starts from a kind of self-handicapping internal dialogue. It goes along the lines of the person feeling they are not experienced or clever enough to do this. Aside from the actually skill of presentation, the person fears the negative evaluation of others and of being the center of attention (at least for this activity). When the person does begin their presentation, they may further handicap themselves by apologizing for - feeling ill, for having previously muddled up their papers, for not having much time to research the materials beforehand - and so on. It sets up a negative experience for their audience who are left feeling they may be about to get a poor deal.


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    You don't have to look far to find advice or tips about ways to overcome stage fright. Pretty much all the advice will say the same thing about the need for preparation. If you haven't got the basics together, you stand a far higher chance of things going wrong. I recently read an article on the website Psychologytoday.com called, Fighting Stage Fright. The article cites Joseph O'Connor who, it seems, suggests five minutes of preparation for every minute of presentation. Also, speak out loud so that you become accustomed to the sound of your own voice. Time yourself and maybe get someone to listen to you and offer feedback.


    In the same article, the author suggests exaggerating your own symptoms. So, if you suffer from shaking, try to make your hands shake more. The author claims you will find that your hands then stop shaking. The principle here is that if you are able to increase symptoms, you are able to control them.


    Arriving early at the venue is frequently regarded as a good thing. It allows you to become familiar with the space and the equipment. If you are amongst the first to arrive you effectively ‘own' the space that other will then enter. Arrive last and it's a bit like having to enter any crowded space in that, for many people, it's just a little more difficult.


    If you have done your preparation, you should find things go pretty smoothly. Nobody expects or even listens out for a slick presentation. How many times have you heard a newsreader have to retrace something they've said? All those years of practice and they're still prone to stumbling and making errors. We all do it, so if you find yourself in the situation, take the time to get back on course and don't get flustered.

Published On: June 06, 2009