When asked to name their number one fear, most people mention speaking in public.
Stage fright is a condition that affects almost half of the population. Comic Jerry Sienfeld has noted that most people would rather be in the box at a funeral than delivering the eulogy. What is it about public speaking that rattles us so?
Essentially, the problem arises when we become fixated on our imagined version of our audience’s response rather than focusing on what it is we are attempting to convey. These type thoughts tend to be both all-encompassing and dour: They are all going to see how dumb I am, Everyone will know I’m a fool, etc. Once we start having these kind of thoughts we begin looking for evidence in the behavior of our audience that supports them, things like seeing people yawn, hearing them cough, or seeing them shifting in their seats or passing cryptic comments. Having thus confirmed our theory through observing these types of behaviors, we have really opened ourselves to a potentially miserable and haunting experience.
How to combat stage fright? First off, admit to yourself that there is an eight hundred pound gorilla in the room. Nothing good can come from denying the existence of the issue. Being well prepared is always the single best remedy; make sure you have rehearsed your presentation well enough so you could do it almost automatically. Organize your speaking notes well and have a second set handy as a backup. This kind of preparation will give you confidence in knowing your material that will serve as a foundation to success.
Make sure you arrive with plenty of time to spare; you don’t need the additional anxiety of getting caught in traffic or being unable to find a parking space. Check out the venue, the sound system, the lighting, if there is a podium, who will introduce you, etc., so there are no surprises prior to your start. Consider mingling with some of the early arrivals to introduce yourself and establish a link with members of your audience. Determine beforehand what routine works best to calm you: some like a few minutes of quiet meditation, some like pacing around backstage, some prefer making small talk with others, some chew gum, etc. Find out what works best for you and make it part of your routine. Avoid taking drugs or alcohol to relax you; if something does go amiss, you’ll want your full wits about you to manage the situation. Above all, focus on your reason for being there. Consider the value to the audience of the information you’re going to impart. Focus on what you are doing, not on how you are being received.
This is, after all, the heart of the matter. The whole trouble with stage fright or any form of social anxiety for that matter is suppressed exhibitionism. I suspect that inside everyone who dreads speaking in public there’s an exhibitionist wanting to emerge. It is primarily because we are unaware of this impulse that it is the cause of so much trouble. It is mostly because we have failed to accept our impulse to perform in public that causes us to place so much emphasis on how other people are responding to us. Once we become aware of and accept in ourselves the impulse and desire to perform in public, half the battle is over. What remains then is to concentrate on what we are saying, our message, our giving in the moment. We really only get into trouble when we lose this focus and concentration by shifting away from the goal of giving by asking ourselves midway through: How am I going over? Do they like me? Am I a success? It’s ok to speculate on the answers to these questions, but wait until you’re finished with your presentation before so indulging yourself. It will all work out so much better if you employ this type of discipline.
Make eye contact with individuals in the audience. Avoid falling into a monotone delivery or clutching the podium for dear life. Be animated in word and gesture. The audience is essentially sympathetic: they want to have a rewarding experience and want you to succeed. They will support you as long as you are willing to support yourself. Should you commit a slip, just shake it off and get immediately back on track with your program: the more energy you give to a slip, the more distracted you will become and the more likely you are to err again.
Engage with the audience by asking questions and involving them. This helps establish rapport and makes your presentation more of a conversation, an interaction between people rather than a one-sided monologue. Open with a joke; that usually helps break the ice and puts people at ease.
Our nervousness does not convey to the audience anywhere near as much as we think it does. Many people, nervous throughout the entire length of their presentation, come to understand afterward when speaking with audience members that their nervousness didn’t show at all. It is one of those phenomena that take place much more in our heads than in the experience of others.
If you first make sure that you are well prepared, you may find that you actually can come to enjoy public speaking. A roller coaster ride is fun because we expect it to be fun; scary movies are fun because we enjoy being frightened; speaking in public is dreadful only when we expect it to be dreadful. If we expect it to be fun and combine this expectation with the diligent effort of being well prepared, it will be fun. A little scary perhaps, but certainly exciting, especially in that the process helps us reclaim a bit of ourselves that we didn’t know previously we even had.