The statistics about stage fright are, well, frightening. Some people would rather face death than speak publicly. Well, may I suggest you think about what happens when you enter the pearly gates (if you believe in pearly gates)? I am guessing you are going to have to say something at that point, right? How rude to arrive in the afterlife, welcomed by a group dressed in white and playing the harps, and not say a word.
But for so many of us, public speaking can be hell (pardon the pun). Even I, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk and The Fine Art of The Big Talk and someone who has delivered over 1000 speeches, get the butterflies every now and again. Here’s the good news — you can overcome your fear of public speaking. Here’s even more good news: I am not going to suggest you picture your audience sitting in their underwear. You are already nervous, and far be it from me to make you physically ill while picturing a bunch of folks lounging in their skivvies. Like life isn’t scary enough.
It is important to remember that stage fright is a natural survival mechanism which causes the release of adrenaline and cortisol, two trusty chemicals that make you turn and run if you are being chased. Blood leaves your stomach, causing confusion and chaos to your system — a.k.a.: the butterflies. When you suffer from stage fright, you (and your body) are under the perception that you are in danger. So, by changing that perception, you can change your response. Really, it can be that easy. Here are some tried and true ways to overcome stage fright:
1. Be Prepared: I mean PREPARED. Know your stuff, your speech, your audience, your blood type, your sister’s cousin’s dog’s favorite chew toy. I’m kidding. Sort of. By knowing your topic and your presentation cold, you will give yourself the gift of confidence and, thus, the chance to eliminate or at least lessen your fear.
2. Be You – Not A Robot: I recommend you memorize the first few of lines of your speech, but not the entire piece. The first few seconds are the most terrifying, so having your opening paragraph committed to memory will help ease those first few flutters. If you are prepared and know your topic, the rest of the speech will sound both polished and conversational, which is the sweet spot of speeches. If you do make a mistake, just move on or make a joke (or both). You are human and — shocker — the audience knows you are human. Humans mess up once in a while. It’s okay.
3. Practice: Practice in front of a mirror, in front of friends, or in front of a videotape. I have a friend who used to practice in front of his baby girl; he got the chance to deliver his talk to a live audience, and she had her father’s undivided attention. Plus, practicing in front of others is penalty-free and fun, making you associate public speaking with something enjoyable versus something, well, not.
4. Talk Yourself Down: While stage fright is truly “all in your head,” the fear manifests itself in the physical sense. The quickest way to combat this is to change your negative self talk (“What if I forget what I am talking about?”) into positive self talk (“What if I am fantastic at this!?”). Sounds silly, I know, but what do you have to lose?
5. Wallow in the Worst: Just can’t get away from the negative what-ifs? Then jump into the worst case scenario with both feet. Swim in it if you must, because after you are done splashing about, you will realize your worst case scenario isn’t really that bad. If you were to trip over your tongue, what’s the worst that could happen? Would you die? No. You would make a joke — “Clearly too much coffee for me this morning” — and get back on track.
6. If You Can See it You Can Be It: Call it what you will: visualization, meditation, reflection. Whatever you name it, just do it. Spend time picturing yourself giving the perfect presentation peppered with confidence, warmth, humor, and intelligence. Imagine the audience responding favorably. The more you imagine something great, the more likely you will achieve something great.
7. Remember It’s Not All About You Oh how many times I’ve said this to the then-teenagers in my life, but it is true for all of us. I promise you that not everyone is thinking about you, judging you, criticizing you, or laughing at you. Or me. Or anyone. So if you are nervous that the world is hanging on your every mistake, get over yourself! Better? Focus on your audience and what they need and deserve from you in the next 20 minutes. By thinking of someone other than yourself, your brain shifts from inwardly focusing to outwardly giving to someone else. This works in speeches and, really, for most things in life. Feeling mad (sad, scared, tired, lonely)? Do a good deed and poof! — magic happens.
8. Create Your Own Happy: Keep a mental list of some great moments in your life. Or do some yoga, listen to music, take a walk, call a friend, or whatever brings you to a place of happiness and peace. It’s hard to be nervous when you are talking to your funniest friend or listening to Stevie Wonder (one of my faves). Also, arriving a bit earlier and interacting with your audience will allow you to find a friendly face and make a great first impression.
9. Do A Body Good As tempting as it is to take a pill or a drink to calm your nerves, don’t. You want to be sharp and focused, not numb or — horrors — slurry. Breathe deep, stretch, wear something that makes you feel fantastic. Be smart about what you eat; avoid large meals and sugar or dairy products, which can cause that creepy thick gunk in your throat. If I am invited to dine with the group before a speech, I eat a little, push the food around my plate and call it good. Now my secret is out! I feel badly about wasting a meal, but for so long I used to refuse a plate and then everyone was looking at me and I had not yet even taken the stage! So, I have learned to play with my food to make it look like I’ve eaten quite a bit, but in reality I go into a speech with very little in my stomach in order to avoid an upset stomach and — worse — food in my teeth.
10. Tricks and Treats: You’ve heard them before, but here they are again, the tricks that keep you settled during a speech:
• Rest shaky hands on a podium; if a podium is not available, hold index cards which shake less than paper. Don’t touch your nose, mouth, clothes, hair, neighbor.
• Make eye contact with someone in the audience.
• Keep a glass of water nearby to keep dry mouth at bay; plus, pausing for a sip of water can buy you some time if you’ve lost your train of thought.
• Create notes that highlight your most important points; make these words large and easy to read so you only have to glance down briefly.
• Speak more slowly than you normally would; it might feel strange to you but your audience will perceive it as calm confidence.
• Stand up straight and smile; it’s almost over!