Harness Stage Fright to Your Advantage

by Edith Barnard, Barnard Communications

Stage fright has plagued talented performers from Elvis to Adele. Fear of public speaking regularly ranks as the number-one phobia, topping fear of heights, spiders, snakes and even death. Just thinking about addressing an audience makes many people cringe.

While it’s the negatives we focus on, there’s actually positive potential to having the jitters. Journalist Edward R. Murrow called stage fright “the sweat of perfection.” Professional speakers know that the same stress hormones that make you stumble over words or even forget your own name can also endow you with superhuman electricity. When speakers harness that energy, they engage the audience and hold their attention. An engaging presenter can reach the back of the room with his or her persona and message. 

Singer Stevie Nicks once pointed out the dual nature of stage fright, wondering: “Is the key to that magical performance because of the fear?” Is that the difference between good and great?

Learning to rethink and reframe the way we view our shaky hands and pounding heart can help us perform better, both mentally and physically. Here are some ways to make nerves your ally.

The first step is as easy as breathing. People worry about sucking in their stomachs to present a firm, flat midriff. That pose causes shallow breathing from the upper chest. Breathing from the belly, however, calms our bodies’ innate stress response—a principle at work in basic meditation and yoga techniques. But getting used to belly breathing, especially when we’re on the spot, requires self-awareness and intention. Like all other elements of correct voice production, it is a habit you can learn. 

Another technique you can learn is taking control. If you’re feeling butterflies in the stomach, you may interpret them as a warning that something bad is about to happen. Command your butterflies to fly in formation with the fine art of faking it. Act as if you are truly confident. It’s not dishonest because you’re not acting outside the truth, only outside the purview of present fact. “En-courage” yourself with reminders of your strong points, the way your friends would. If you can’t think of positive things to say about yourself, let your cause do the talking—the reason you’re speaking publicly in the first place. 

Mahatma Gandhi suffered frequent panic attacks during his student days, and the fear of addressing crowds continued to haunt him as a lawyer. During his first case, he panicked and left the courtroom. What happened to turn him into the fearless leader of a revolution? His desire to see a free India moved him to stand up for what he believed. He noted that his “hesitancy in speech” even became an advantage later, teaching him to pack meaning into short, pithy statements. 

We can’t all be Gandhi. In fact, comparing your performance against others actually adds more anxiety to your burden. Call your delivery a success if you improved over last time. Take the load of anxiety off and replace “perfection” with “progress.” iBi