Did you know that seasoned musician John Lennon used to throw up before his performances? Barbra Streisand, Laurence Olivier, Bob Dylan, and Andrea Bocelli also have suffered from the classic symptoms of stage fright: the sweaty palms, the tight throat, the general terror before standing in front of a crowd and performing. For presenters, an intimate setting with visible participants can be even more frightening than appearing before a huge concert crowd. In fact, studies have shown that performers “have a much more difficult time in a small room with a handful of people sitting behind a folding table. That is, auditions are significantly more likely to engender stage fright than performances—by 19.2 percent.” – Gordon Goodman.
Do you experience stage fright before a presentation? As a form of social anxiety, there are proven techniques to help reduce its effects and perhaps even end it entirely. If you are planning for an upcoming presentation, start with this guide.
Why Does It Happen?
Most fears trigger a “fight or flight” response in the body, and stage fright is no exception. The response is supposed to help the body protect itself from danger, but can sometimes feel like an overzealous fire alarm going off every time you make toast. Before you step in front of the crowd, the body activates the sympathetic nervous system. The hypothalamus in the brain causes the pituitary gland to secrete the ACTH hormone. Then the ACTH stimulates the adrenal glands within your kidneys, sending adrenaline shooting into the bloodstream and causing a series of reactions that tense up the body. These muscles tense in order to prepare for an attack, leaving a person with a feeling cold fingers and toes as extra blood flows to the vital organs.
What does this fearful response feel like? A Harvard Mental Health letter describes it as such: “Anxiety usually has physical symptoms that may include a racing heart, a dry mouth, a shaky voice, blushing, trembling, sweating, lightheadedness, and nausea.” Thank you, Body, for your helpful application of blushes when you most need to look stoic and important.
“Fight or flight” is a natural part of the human experience. There is a famous story about a time when Charles Darwin visited a snake exhibit in a London zoo. He put his face right up next to the glass while an angry puff adder snake tried to bite his face off. Even though the glass protected Darwin, he jumped back every time. In his diary, he later wrote: “my will and reason were powerless against the imagination of a danger which had never been experienced.”
Your fear is natural and healthy. If Charles Darwin said so, you don’t have to be embarrassed. Just picture a robust-looking old man putting his spectacles right up to the glass at the snake exhibit and nearly wetting himself every single time the snake struck. Aside from picturing that image, what are some techniques to calm your presentation nerves?
Step One: Know Your Stuff
“Only the prepared speaker deserves to be confident.” – Dale Carnegie
Running through your outline the night before the presentation is not enough to make yourself a confident presenter. One major cause of stage fright is unfamiliarity with material. An actor runs through a play dozens of times, even if they are only delivering half of a line. Your presentation may have even higher personal stakes than a theater production of Cats! and should be given the same respect. Practice your content from start to finish at least seven times before you step into the building; there are also some great resources from the Ethos3 archive that describe different ways to practice.
Science has proven that practice works, at any age, no excuse. In a study about brain plasticity and aging, scientists were surprised to discover that: “When we learn a new skill, whether it’s programming in Ruby on Rails, providing customer support over the phone, playing chess, or doing a cartwheel, we are changing how your brain is wired on a deep level. Science has shown us that the brain is incredibly plastic – meaning it does not “harden” at age 25 and stay solid for the rest of our lives. While certain things, especially language, are more easily learned by children than adults, we have plenty of evidence that even older adults can see real transformations in their neurocircuitry.” (Source)
Imagine being so familiar with your content that you could shut off your brain and count carpet fibers during your presentation. It’s all possible with practice.
Step Two: Breathing Techniques to Reduce Anxiety
Deep breathing is meant to stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system, which is triggered when our body is at rest and relaxing. It is the complete opposite of our sympathetic nervous system, which as we’ve already discussed, revs up our “fight or flight” response. Practicing deep breathing can help bring balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system, relaxing your body naturally.
“By voluntarily changing the rate, depth, and pattern of breathing, we can change the messages being sent from the body’s respiratory system to the brain. In this way, breathing techniques provide a portal to the autonomic communication network through which we can, by changing our breathing patterns, send specific messages to the brain using the language of the body, a language the brain understands and to which it responds. Messages from the respiratory system have rapid, powerful effects on major brain centers involved in thought, emotion, and behavior.” – Authors Richard P. Brown, M.D. and Patricia L. Gerbarg, M.D. in their book, “The Healing Power of the Breath.”
There are many different kinds of techniques for deep breathing and a lot of great resources on YouTube. Here is a video we recommend:
Step Three: Embrace Imperfection
Just as with Charles Darwin and his fear of the snake that couldn’t reach him, it’s the perceived, not the actual fear of failure in front of an audience that triggers our anxiety. It’s highly unlikely that the audience is going to grab several pitchforks and run you out of town. As a presenter, you are offering something valuable to your audience. They are there by choice, so refuse to dwell on the minutiae of pleasing each audience member with the funniest story they’ve ever heard.
Dr. Noa Kageyama wrote an excellent article detailing the study of stage fright for orchestra musicians. His advice ignored some more traditional techniques and cut to the chase: anxiety is good. It enhances your focus and ensures that you aren’t simply gliding through a performance.
“A lot of people assume that reducing performance anxiety is a good thing, but in reality, this is just a myth. Before you start sending me emails explaining how I am mistaken, look back on your own performance history. I’m sure you will be able to think of performances when you were too calm and too relaxed, and saw your playing suffer as a result.” – Noa Kageyama
He goes on to suggest that many techniques to reduce anxiety, including strange ones like eating a banana or a slice of turkey, are effective for performers/presenters…but as placebo. It begins and ends with your perception of the situation.
In the (censored for language) words of veteran pitcher Ralph Terry to Jim Bouton: “When you’re out there on the mound today, kid, just remember one thing: No matter what happens, win or lose, five hundred million Chinese don’t care.”
Step Four: Try Something Crazy
Most quick-fix stage fright remedies can’t take the place of practice and a better mental outlook. However, sometimes they work. In the same way that every grandma knows a strange technique to cure hiccups, many presenters find these unique methods to be effective. This can include:
Working Out The Day-Of – Endorphins that are released in your body during a workout give you a “natural high” feeling which can last for up to 12 hours. This can be a huge incentive for presenters to experience a boost of positivity before an event.
Exuding False Confidence – “Fake it ‘till you make it” is a real technique for creating confidence. Wear a huge smile, put your shoulders back, and strut into your presentation like you’re Oprah.
Audience Games of Pretend – Don’t imagine the audience in their underwear unless you want to blush for the rest of your life. Instead, try picturing someone you love sitting in the audience, or perhaps an entire audience made up of friends who want you to succeed.
The BRAT Diet – We’ve written extensively about the power of food before a performance to help ease a nervous stomach. The BRAT diet in particular was made for sensitive stomachs: the acronym stands for Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, and Toast.
A Pep Talk With Yourself – Many performers are helped by the old fashioned mirror pep talk. A little exaggeration about your own abilities can sometimes go a long way.
Stand Like a Champion – Amy Cuddy’s famous TED Talk, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are,” offers an incredible study about the power of stance on the human brain. She recommends taking a few minutes before an event to build up your confidence through a series of poses that tell your brain, “I’m a superhero.”
Can You Really “End” Stage Fright?
Unless you have a complete disregard for your audience, anxiety over a presentation should rightly be present before and during your speech. However, this fear should never stop you from walking into that boardroom and delivering your message. You aren’t eliminating your stage fright, but rather, using the anxiousness to keep you sharp as you present.
Be fully prepared, take some time to let your body relax through breathing, don’t worry about the small stuff, and find out what techniques work best for you. You’re going to do a great job, we promise.
Question: When was the last time you experienced stage fright?
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