It is the morning of your speech to the leadership team. You have worked hard on getting it just right. But when it comes time to deliver, you’re so nervous that you can barely breathe. Your hands are sweating, your heart is pounding. Your muscles are tense. You can’t even remember what you want to say. You feel as if you’re fighting your body all the way through your performance, and afterwards you’re disappointed. Stage fright has stopped you from being your best.
Sound familiar to you? Well, it certainly sounds familiar to me, because some years back that WAS me. But I have good news for you. Stage fright is curable. And right now I’m going to share with you the three main things you need to do if you want to say goodbye to stage fright forever.
First, though, we’re taking a fast ride back through time. In order to manage stage fright successfully, you have to understand its origins. Welcome to the Stone Age!
Back then, Mr and Mrs Caveman faced physical threat from other cavemen or from wild animals. As part of a brilliant survival kit, these early people were equipped with a built-in defence mechanism discovered in the 1930s and called the “Fight or Flight” reflex. And it functioned like this:
When Mr Caveman was threatened by physical danger, his fear triggered an alarm that prompted the release of hormones into his body, changing his physical state within seconds. The release of adrenaline kicked up his heartbeat; fat and sugar reserves were pumped to his muscles along with more blood so that Mr Caveman could either run away or stay and fight. Then, hydrocortisone was released into his body, shutting down his immune- and digestive systems so that all his energy was steered towards surviving whatever danger he faced. These processes created additional physical strength in moments when peril was close at hand.
So, was that just a history lesson? Not at all, because this mechanism is still part of our survival kit! When we feel threatened, fight-or-flight symptoms are activated. This is great for facing a sabre-toothed tiger, but not for public performance. And the trouble is, our bodies can’t tell the difference. If you view making a speech or some other type of public performance as something even slightly fearful, stage fright symptoms will kick in – that’s the way we’re made! And while most of us are happy to feel a buzz of excitement when we perform, we don’t want stronger symptoms, which can sabotage our success.
How can you overcome stage fright? First of all, try to accept that symptoms like sweaty palms, shallow breath, shaking hands or legs, flushed face, cracking voice, memory loss and the need to go to the toilet more than usual are normal if you’re feeling scared before a public performance. There’s nothing “wrong” with you. If you focus on the task at hand rather than on the unusual state of your body, the symptoms will diminish.
The second step is even more important. Don’t “fight” your stage fright symptoms, as tensing your muscles will only increase your discomfort. For instance, one popular strategy often used by stage fright sufferers is tightening up their chests. Try it out. You’ll find that this tightens your rib cage and contracts your breathing muscles so that you have even less breath than before. Unhelpful strategies like this one are often the main reason why some folk still struggle with stage fright after years of trying to overcome it.
Instead of fighting stage fright symptoms, I recommend the following ancient Tibetan relaxation exercise. You can do this sitting down or even lying down. Close your thumb and fingers as gently and slowly as you can until they make a fist, and then open them again until your fingers are stretched open. Please do the exercise as slowly as you can, and repeat the sequence several times. You may find yourself yawning or breathing more deeply – that’s good. The exercise has a calming effect on the nervous system and has helped countless stage fright sufferers.
Thirdly, if you experience strong stage fright symptoms, check out what you do differently with your body when you try to make a good first impression. Putting yourself on your “best behaviour” could actually be stopping you from being the great speaker, sales rep, singer or teacher you want to be.
For instance, when I deliver stage fright workshops, I often see speakers puffing up or stretching their bodies in an effort to look more confident, bigger or stronger. They believe erroneously that the best way to make a good first impression is through additional physical effort. But by stretching up or tightening your rib cage you will interfere with your breathing, and your sense of discomfort and tension will increase.
In order to perform well, you just need to be you. It’s not necessary to adopt any special position that could actually end up detracting from your performance.
Finally, if you experience really strong stage fright, you need to get more physical exercise (if possible, also shortly before your performance). This reduces the level of chemicals released by the fight-or-flight reflex into the body, and helps you to settle.
So, here again are the things you need to remember: 1. Accept that stage-fright symptoms are normal when you feel threatened or scared. 2. Try to avoid tensing up your body when you feel scared, as this will only make things worse. Instead, try the hand exercise described above. 3. Remember that you can make a good first impression without tightening your muscles and interfering with your breathing. 4. Get additional physical exercise as this helps to remove the chemicals created in your body by stage fright.
Once upon a time I was a very nervous performer. Today I work as a professional speaker and trainer, and destructive stage fright is a thing of the past. If you follow the suggestions I have outlined above in your own performance preparation, you’ll soon say goodbye to stage fright.
By Lesley Stephenson
© Lesley Stephenson, May 2018
Lesley is a keynote speaker, MC, and communications coach. She has won both the European and Australian Speaking Championships and will represent Switzerland in the 2018 European Speaking Championships in Athens later this month. She is the founder of the charity Ethiopian Enterprises and the leader of its Mehoni School Project in Northern Ethiopia. She spends three-four months each year working as a volunteer in Ethiopia. Visit Lesley at www.lesleystephenson.com
Illustration by Lara Friedrich
Lara has been a freelance illustrator for Family Matters since early 2013, and she has also contributed recipes. She is in her third year of University (majoring in Psychology) where she’s currently working as an assistant in a research project in pedagogy. Lara is also an assistant translator from German to English for various fiction books, and works as a demo singer for the songwriter Kate Northrop. Lara works part-time in a bistro and posts occasional food pics and illustrations to Instagram.