Do you suffer from stage fright? Some agree with Mark Twain’s adage that there are two types of public speaker: those who get nervous and those who are liars. Whether the thought of speaking in public fills you with dread and fear instead of excitement, you may well have quite a few unhelpful physical symptoms that spring up. Your heart probably pounds, your palms sweat. Maybe your voice wobbles and your hands tremble. But for all the physical cues, interestingly, stage fright is first and foremost a mental state.
So, sure, we need to get our heads in the right space before we give the talk. But here’s a secret: even those people who absolutely love presenting, who look forward to educating their audience and who relish having a speech to deliver will have, to some degree, the same symptoms: thumping heart; sweaty palms; shortness of breath and trembling body. It’s adrenaline doing its job: preparing the body for an apparent impending ‘fight or flight’ scenario. And adrenalin is your friend: it will push you through and mentally prepare you for the fray.
That every type of presenter gets these physical symptoms is good news. It means that, if you are a nervous speaker, your body isn’t giving away a shameful secret – it’s simply reacting to context, just like everyone else’s body does. Everyone gets these physical symptoms, more or less.
However, what your audience thinks is a factor to giving a happy speech. And your audience will assume – whether you’re actually scared or merely happily excited – that your trembling hands and wobbly voice prove that you are extremely uncomfortable. And you being uncomfortable, of course, makes your audience uncomfortable. An uncomfortable audience gives out bad signals such as negative body posture, which in turn will make you feel awkward – creating a negative stage-audience feedback loop that’s hard to get past.
So, whether you’re happy and excited or scared and nervous, the trick is to take command of your body and control those outward signs, so the audience feels relaxed. One of the biggest lightbulb moments for me came last year when a visiting improv teacher told us: “In improv, it doesn’t matter how you feel, what matters is how you make the audience feel.”
The trick, then, is to take the focus off yourself and put it on the audience. If you’re a nervous presenter, you can actively work on controlling those outward signs that signal your nerves. Because, crucially, if your audience is relaxed, they’ll trust you and take in what you’re saying more confidently. The good thing is that no matter how you feel about your situation – whether it’s a stressful one-to-one office chat, a snap slot in a board meeting or a complex presentation to a crowd of strangers – you can control the inevitable undesirable physical side-effects.
Run to Stand Still
Pump out that pent up nervous energy. Is it possible to exercise on presentation morning? Can you climb a few flights of stairs or swing your arms vigorously beforehand? It’ll feel like the last thing you want to do but try a mini-workout a few hours before you present. This will release a lot of the adrenaline and produce the endorphins that’ll chill you out. Result? Your voice and hands will tremble less, you won’t sweat so much, you won’t hop from foot to foot nervously – and inevitably, you’ll appear calmer to your audience.
Better Articulate Than Never
Get control of your voice: get talking. Don’t just mouth your speech to yourself or run it in your head: get yourself outside your head and vocalise. If you can take yourself outdoors or to a stairwell and declaim something – anything – out loud, you’ll get into ‘speaker’ mode. Sing a song, shout a prayer, yell what you plan to have for dinner – hey, you could even recite your speech! Just get vocal well before the presentation so you get used to the sound of your voice and push past the moment it cracks or breaks or wobbles.
Get Silly, Stoopid!
A while beforehand, shrug off your serious side and make yourself laugh. Scrunch your shoulders; waddle like a penguin. Sing a song in a ridiculous voice. Imagine your audience. Imagine they love you. Pull some faces; make yourself laugh, even if it feels false. Laugh out loud until it feels natural. Give yourself permission to be a fool and you’ll be less tense when you meet your audience, plus they’ll appreciate your relaxed smile. Plan in an opening joke and you’ll also warm up the room, cutting your nerves in half immediately. Bonus.
Narrow Your Horizons
Shortly before presenting, you don’t have to look at the bigger picture. In fact, it’ll help to shut down your monkey mind and simply focus on your breathing. Sit and inhale through your nostrils for three seconds, hold for two seconds, then exhale through your mouth for four seconds. If you mind wanders, acknowledge that you’ve had a thought and then gently bring your attention back to your breathing. Sit and breathe mindfully for at least five minutes and tap into the zen.
Remember: everyone gets physical nerves. Your aim is to look confident so the audience trusts you. The audience want you to look confident so they can relax and listen properly. Follow the above tips and you’ll help everyone to feel more chilled out and ready to learn from you. Happy presenting!