Minimizing Stage Fright

I was presenting to a group for the first time last week and while the slide said “Relationships – How to Be a Real Success”, I said something like, “Sex is real important in relationships” (I don’t know what I actually said because the embarrassment basically erased my memory). And the crowd erupted.  I went three shades of red.  We were all laughing, especially me.  It was easy from there.  Isn’t that crazy?  Somehow I connected to the audience because of my blunder.  I became a human in everyone else’s eyes.

I’m a big Zoe Keating fan (a fabulous avaunt-garde cellist).  She apparently has suffered from performance anxiety and was written about in an article by Therese J. Borchard in World of Psychology called Conquering Performance Anxiety: A Primer for All Phobias.  What is interesting is that she conquered her fear by not performing in front of a group of people that she knew but by “busking” (street performing) at a BART station in San Francisco.  She conquered her fear by playing for an uncaring audience because once they started leaving some money and showing appreciation for her playing, she was emboldened.  Even if she made mistakes, they still thanked her for her playing.  Being a parent of a musician, I can tell you that you don’t notice mistakes as the listener, but as a musician, it’s all you pay attention to.

I received some helpful advice in a training course for DiSC by Inscape Publishing several years ago which was, “It’s all about them.”  When you focus on the audience and your only intention is to bring knowledge, skills or a new awareness to the group in front of you, the fear is damped down.  Squashed like a grape.

So how can you squash your fears and minimize your stage fright?  Here are a couple of ideas.

1.  Meditate.  Even 5 minutes a day can improve your focus.  It builds the gray matter in your brain and keeps the “stage” clear in your prefrontal cortex.  When you can focus, you are keeping your lizard brain at bay.  The more you practice meditation, the better the benefits.  You don’t see the Dalai Lama stressing out and having performance anxiety.

2. Beliefs.  My daughter told me the other day that she was nervous about midterms.  She said, “I’m bad at taking tests”.  If you believe that you are “bad” at taking tests, you will be.  If you believe that you are going to be nervous when you speak in front your Rotary club, you will be.  As Byron Katie prescribes, do the turn around.  Say to yourself that you are awesome at taking tests, inspiring at speaking in front of an audience, or that you’re going to rock this interview.  You gotta believe.

3. ReappraisalDavid Rock promotes this in his book Your Brain At Work. When you go on high alert because you feel a lack of control and uncertainty (such as getting on stage in front of a group or taking the SATs), try and re-frame your thinking.   I remember being given the advice that you should imagine that everyone is naked…really?  Now that is scary.  Try and reframe by saying to yourself, “Everyone is excited about what I’m going to say” or “I am really prepared for this test and I’m going to give it my best”.  When you can reflect and re-frame, you dampen down the fear response.

4. Transparent.   The audience cannot see inside your head.  Taylor Clark wrote in his book Nerve about the “illusions of transparency” bias. Put simply, we tend to believe that our internal emotional states are more obvious to others than they truly are. Outside of blushing and nervous twitches, the audience has no idea if you are calm and confident or shaking in your boots.  Assume the former and move on.

5. Move.  If you sit in the wings of the stage gnashing your teeth, you will raise your heart rate and stress level.  Take a ten-minute walk and get the blood flowing to your gray matter.  In fact, put your iPod on and listen to some uplifting music while you take that walk.

6. Alcohol and Caffeine. Your adrenaline is high enough.  There is no reason to pump up your system so lay off the Mountain Dew, espresso and dark chocolate.  You don’t want to be a jittery mess.  A shot of tequila or glass of Merlot is a not good route either.  You want to be on top of your game, so keep your gray matter in top form.

7. Prepare.  Run through your materials.  Don’t over think it but make sure you feel comfortable.  I find that I am always better the second time I give a training or speech.  I know where the lulls are, what questions come up and what material to throw out.  It’s the same when you take an exam for the second time in a class. You know what the professor is looking for the second time around.

Try one or two of these the next time your stage fright shows up.  Build from there. You can tame your fear with a little practice.

How do you conquer stage fright?

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