Stage fright has been around forever and it’s getting harder to avoid. Like it or not, more and more of us find public speaking playing an important role in our personal and professional lives.
The ability to be comfortable when speaking in front of others may very well be critical to your future success.
So what is stage fright?
Whenever you perceive some stimulus as a threat, your subconscious mind triggers a series of responses preparing you to freeze, flee or fight back. Sometimes called the fight or flight response. The resulting symptoms can include; increased heart rate and breathing, flushing or growing pale, dry mouth, shaking and even loss of hearing or tunnel vision. The important thing to note is that this process is controlled by an instinctive part of your mind not your rational conscious mind. By the time you realise you’re nervous you’re already into it you can’t just talk yourself out of it.
So how can you stop being nervous?
The secret is to practice skills that reduce those physical symptoms and use the nervous energy constructively.
Here are five ways to do this:
Grounding – This means to place yourself on a firm foundation and to settle. When you’re not grounded your body tends to tense up and lift yourself away from the ground, your breathing gets shallow and your voice gets high. When your grounded your body tends to relax downward, this enables you to breathe deeply, feel calm and more confident.
Try this exercise:
Stand and take off your shoes and close your eyes. Notice the sensations you feel on your feet, sensations of temperature, texture, heat and so forth. notice if you’re standing on your whole foot or focusing your weight on just part of your foot. How would it feel to allow your whole foot to support your body, not just part of your foot. Make sure your knees are relaxed and not locked back and stiff. Balanced not held.
You need to feel an open pathway through your knees to the ground. Notice how you can feel your feet and feel the ground supporting you when your knees are relaxed.
Ask yourself if you’re standing on your bones. If your bones are acting like pillars to support your body then your large external muscles might be able to relax over that framework, like clothing draped over a hanger. Scan through your body. If your bones are supporting you, you might be able to relax your legs unclench your bottom, let go of your belly, soften your lower back, drop your shoulders or lengthen the back of your neck.
Standing with economy of effort frees you to focus on other things, like speaking! You can practice grounding whenever it crosses your mind; brushing your teeth, waiting in a queue, standing in the office talking to colleagues. At any moment you can ask yourself am I connected to the ground right now? Do I feel the ground supporting me at this moment? Am I allowing my entire body to relax down onto the ground? Then continue doing whatever you were doing, noticing what difference it makes. It quickly becomes a feeling you wouldn’t want to live without, especially when speaking in public.
Breathing – You’re standing in front of your audience. What do you notice about your breathing? You probably feel short of breath. Whats happening is you’re only breathing into your upper chest. You’re taking small breaths and you’re squeezing the channel through which the air is trying to flow.
When you breathe into the bottom of your lungs you take in much more air and expose it to extensive bloodflow. Respiration happens far more efficiently so your heart rate slows down, blood pressure decreases, muscle tension diminishes throughout your body and your rewarded with the release of endorphins, the happy hormone that makes you feel good. it’s also a great strategy for managing nervous energy. Breathing right and making it a habit are the real challenges.
So how do you make sure you’re doing it right?
Try this exercise:
Lie on the floor. Place a hand on your belly and make sure your breathing through your mouth not your nose.
Inhale gently then exhale letting your belly fall towards the ground, as though squeezing some air out of your belly. Now slowly relax your belly muscles as you inhale. You’ll feel your belly rise and expand like a balloon. As soon as its full exhale by letting your belly fall towards the floor again then inhale relaxing your belly allowing it to expand. Notice your belly moves away from your back as you inhale then falls towards your back as you exhale.
When you can do this easily on the floor try it in a kneeling position then a seated position then try it standing. You might notice a temptation to inhale by lifting your chest when standing. Resist that temptation. Your belly expands as you inhale and contracts as you exhale. Your chest and shoulders don’t need to move at all. Confirm this in front of a mirror and remember your breathing through your mouth.
At first it might not be easy and it might feel unnatural. Don’t let that stop you as this is critical to your progress. You can make deep breathing a habit. How?
Practice is the only way to turn knowledge into skill and skill is the only thing that will help you when it’s time to perform.
Rehearsing – Most people assume a speech is ready when it’s written.
But real preparation addresses so much more than content. If you stop to think about it it’s obvious that writing a speech and delivering a speech are two different skill sets. You’re not fully prepared until you’ve spent time doing what you actually will be doing during the speech; standing on your feet and talking through the material out loud.
Much of the anxiety felt at the beginning of a speech stems from unfamiliarity with the performance and the realisation that you’re not as prepared as you thought you were. Your voice sounds strange in the room. Words that looked good on paper seem stilted coming out of your mouth. Transitions from one point to the next seem abrupt and too obvious. If the actual performance is your first experience of the speech no wonder it’s nerve wracking!
There are many barriers that can keep you from rehearsing;
The idea might seem boring. You’d rather be watching television or you may feel embarrassed to stand in front of a mirror and rehearse out loud. It seems artificial, it’s kids stuff!
Another obstacle to rehearsal may be your high level of expertise. You might know the topic like the back of your hand, so how hard could it be to talk about it? That’s a mistake you’ll make only once! You might think you’ll do better if you don’t practice too much, that you’ll be more spontaneous and conversational. People who claim to be better speakers by preparing less are kidding themselves or trying to excuse their laziness.
I recommend rehearsing your speech at least three times. That way you know how it sounds, how it feels, how it flows. Every run through results in improvements to the structure and the delivery. Why deprive yourself of that advantage?
Focus – Don’t make the mistake of thinking the presentation is about you!
Yes you may be the only one speaking. You may indeed be centre of attention, but ultimately it’s not about you. It’s about your audience. They have to get the message or the whole exercise is a waste of time.
Acute nervousness is a sign you’re focused on the wrong thing; yourself!
Instead of getting your message out, the more you focus on your discomfort the less attention you have to devote to your listeners. If you become preoccupied with your nervousness you become disconnected from the conversation. That will begin a downward spiral of self-consciousness that really could cripple your speech.
When you’re overwhelmed with symptoms of nervousness it’s easy to feel your doing a bad job. That’s a trap! A pounding heart is just a pounding heart. Shaky knees are just shaky knees. Not a sign from the gods that you’re going to fail!
Let the symptoms of nervousness remind you that you have an important job to do. To get this message to those people. Your audience needs you! Cultivate the ability to care for your listeners and maintain a fierce focus on your task as the messenger. Nervousness and anxiety will fade into the background and perhaps disappear altogether.
Investing – When you’re in the grip of panic all you want to do is hide!
Your voice gets quiet your gestures get smaller or disappear and your face becomes expressionless. You pullback. You dial down the energy. You stop putting anything forward. Then your listeners become unresponsive because you’re not giving them anything. That makes you feel worse. You disappoint yourself and you feel weak.
Instead you should be coming out to play! Your goal as a speaker is to make a connection and that challenges you to be fully available to your listeners. The moment you notice nervousness, turn it up a notch. Give 110%! Throw yourself into the speech. Remember why you need to communicate your message. Re-ignite your passion and invest yourself more intensely in the delivery. Move toward the discomfort rather than away from it. In this way you create an outlet for the nervous energy. You use it constructively instead of trying to control it. You direct the flow instead of fighting against the current. When you are completely invested in the delivery of your message you reinforce yourself, it’s invigorating, you feel strong.
So take a chance. Look them in the eye. Let your voice fill the room. Allow your gestures to take up more space and remember this; an imperfect speech delivered with passion will always trump a polished but lifeless performance.
Many people have travelled this road before you successfully. They did it by taking clear deliberate action.
are five skills that will lead to continuous improvement.
Now visualise this scenario….
You’re standing in front of your audience. It could be 10 familiar faces or 100 total strangers. They turn expectant eyes towards you, not critical, just waiting. You take a moment to feel the ground and give your body permission to relax downward. You open your mouth, allow a breath to flow into your belly, smile and begin to speak.
The voice that comes out is strong and confident. The introduction you rehearsed feels right, like its spontaneous. The eyes watching you seem intrigued, maybe even surprised. You feel good, ready for what’s ahead. You move into your material speaking clearly and deliberately. You notice your left knee is trembling a bit, nervousness or excitement? It’s hard to tell. You relax your leg and bring your attention back to the job in hand. You focus more intently on your message.
You look directly into the eyes of your listeners and put a bit more energy into your voice. Now they’re smiling, nodding. They’re with you, like you’re having a conversation. A question is raised. You pause, breathe, start with a short answer and expand from there. Before you know it you’re into the concluding remarks, summarising your points with clear relaxed gestures. All too soon it’s over. You hear generous applause and see glances of admiration. There’s no denying it’s intoxicating. You feel so alive you actually want to do it again.