10 (or So) Tips for Stage Fright

By Alyson Connolly

Stage fright or the fear of public speaking can afflict nearly anyone. This list pulls together some tips and advice aimed at helping you overcome your fear of public speaking.

Accept Your Fear

The first step to solving any problem is to be aware of it. Be it smoking, eating cheesy-poofs before bed, interrupting your kids and not listening to them because you know the answer — your acceptance that it’s actually a problem is important. And before you work on accepting your fear, let me tell you something: It’s okay to be afraid. It’s natural to be afraid.

Fear of public speaking is common and widespread. As the old saying goes, many people are more afraid of public speaking than of dying. It’s all right if you’re in that boat. But instead of taking that information and allowing it to make you more negative, just accept it and move on.

And there’s the kicker. Because how is just accepting the fear going to help you at all? By going out there and doing it, that’s how. Speaking in front of people. You could be doing it every day, at work, at the parent-teacher meeting, to the checkout clerk at the grocery store. Sometimes it’s as easy as that. So now, when you talk to the checkout clerk, remember what you’re actually doing: You’re public speaking. You don’t have to be on a stage with an audience of 1,000. Start small.

And don’t worry if you’re nervous. If you’re nervous a little a bit, that’s good, because when you feel nervous that means you care about it. And the audience wants to see someone who is up there speaking about something she cares about.

If you need extra help, confide in a colleague. Talk to him about it. He might tell you his story. But don’t confide to the audience that you’re terrified. They don’t need or want to know that.

Remember that it’s not about you — it’s about your message. You’re just the vessel. Sorry about that. The more you focus on what you have to do and get across to the audience, the less you’ll think about you.

Don’t let nervousness turn into anxiety about the event.

Try this: Right now, wherever you are, think about that upcoming speech. Do you feel anxious about it? Remember a time when you felt this way and what happened in your body. Do you clench your stomach, is your breathing shallow, are you thinking that you have nothing to say and so why are you going up there anyway?

Now try to be as anxious as possible. Tap into the physiological responses that occur in your body. Can you do it? How hard is it? If you’re upset about something and are trying not to cry, what happens? You cry harder than normal. That’s because all the focus is giving that feeling more power as you’re trying to stifle it. If you just allow yourself to cry, you might, or you might not.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Here’s an all-too-common scenario: You’re afraid to do that presentation, so you just leave it till the last possible second before you need to present. You don’t even think about it, or at least you don’t think about what you’re going to say, anyway. What you do think about is how standing up there in front of people freaks you out. So, you pull an ostrich routine. But that presentation is coming, whether you think about it or not. Maybe you think you know the content so you’ll just wing it.

Don’t. If you’re read any other part of this book, or even have any general knowledge about how people acquire skills, you know the answer: You must practice. Not just to get better, either — to reduce the fear. The more you practice and know your speech backward and forward, the more comfortable you’ll feel. It can and will become second nature.

Breathe Slowly and Deeply

When you’re afraid, the “fight, flight, or freeze” response kicks into gear. You start to take short breaths from your upper chest. Or you hold your breath. Ever hear a noise in the kitchen in the middle of the night? Bet you held your breath. You can thank the “fight, flight, or freeze” response for that.

But you can combat it by breathing. Deliberately taking full breaths slowly activates the “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system, which calms you down.

Don’t wait until you feel afraid to start breathing slowly and deeply. Instead, get into the habit of breathing like that all the time.

Remember to breathe at all times. Yeah, I know. You are breathing at all times. You’ve come this far, haven’t you? But are you breathing to your full breath potential? Here are some reminders:

  • Breathe when you enter the room for your presentation.
  • Breathe when you meet and greet your contact.
  • Breathe when you gather your materials and set up.
  • Breathe when you can’t find your USB stick. (Pssst, it’s in your briefcase — remember you double-checked it before you left?)
  • Take three full breaths before you begin your presentation.
  • Breathe when someone asks you a question at the Q&A that you have to think about or don’t know the answer to. (You may have to respond that you will find the answer and get back to that person.)

Use Progressive Relaxation

When you’re afraid, you tense up your body. It’s often as simple as that. It’s akin to an animal being attacked. It’s one of our most primitive instincts. But tension, as we know by now, is a killer for the presenter. You can’t take full breaths deep into your lower abdomen, your jaw is tight, and in fact your whole body may be so tight you look like you could snap at any moment.

Be Up and Out, Not Down and In

So much of communication comes from your body, not your words. It starts with how you pose. And that starts with getting aligned in an up and out position (head up and balanced naturally on your spine, chin not tucked or thrust forward, chest open).

Imagine your feet are planted with roots growing down from the bottom of your feet into the ground. The rest of your body is stretching with energy growing up to the crown of your head to the sky.

Your head is held up straight and your ears are aligned with your shoulders and hips. Your chest is not caved in or pushed out. It is open so that your breath can move freely. Shoulders are back and aligned with hips. Pelvis is aligned directly under shoulders.

When you move your body in an up and out pose, you’re looking at the world with your head held high. When you’re in a down and in pose, you’re doing exactly the opposite: You’re breathing from your upper chest in short breaths, which is what you do when you are anxious and afraid, and you don’t exude confidence. When you move in an up and out pose you feel like you can take on the world, your breath drops deep into your lower abdomen, and you look confident too! And that means you speak with confidence — after all, you’re the expert.

You may find yourself giving a presentation to a “down and in” group — they’re looking at the floor, not at you, they’re not engaged, and they look like they want to bolt for the door. Nevertheless, maintain your up and out position. Hopefully the group will look at you and your confidence and want to emulate you.

Move Your Hands

Place your hands in the horizontal plane that goes out from your navel. When you move your hands in this area, your calming “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system is activated.

What does that mean for your speech? The idea is to make you look and feel calmer and more genuine. And the tone of your voice will sound calmer, too. You can gesture in this truth plane pose, as Mark Bowden calls it, while talking to someone before the presentation, and it will calm and center you. Practice this movement when you speak to a colleague about a problem — then leave your hands down by your sides and see how that feels. You’ll probably start breathing from high in your chest, feel lousy, and find little to say.

You can still feel powerful when you’re sitting. When you’re presenting in a board meeting in a seated position, make sure to have your feet flat on the floor and maintain the up and out position. Hands need to be above the table to help express your thoughts and ideas and help calm you down. If they’re below the table, you won’t seem as engaged, and the audience is wondering what’s going on down there.

Get Positive — Yes Let’s

Throw I can’t out the window. You have been asked to present. Asked. So don’t shoot yourself in the foot with negative thinking.

If you think your presentation will go badly because you’re so darned afraid to present, it probably will. Don’t prophesy against yourself. Don’t be a self-saboteur. This is an opportunity to strut your stuff and tell the world what you know. Lucky you, right?

  • Say, “Yes, let’s.” Say yes to everything, both in your head and to others. Yes, I’m excited. Yes, I’m scared. Yes, I know my stuff. Yes, I can adapt my presentation without slides if necessary.
  • Smile. Smiling makes you look more approachable. Plus it makes you feel good, and others often smile back. The audience often mimics you — if they see a scared face up on that stage, that might not bode well for their perception.
  • Be grateful. You should be so lucky. You should feel fortunate that you’ve been asked to present. And you should appreciate the fact that the organizer thinks you’re the one to do it.

Make that list of what you have to be grateful for: coffee in the morning, your suit fits perfectly, your boss thinks you’re the right person to present because you know what you’re talking about.

  • Be positive in your self-talk. Something good will come out of this. Someone thinks you’ve got something to say or she wouldn’t have asked you. The audience wants to hear what you have to say.
  • Surround yourself with positive people. Bypass Negative Ned at the reception desk and seek out your pal in the office three floors below who always thinks positive.
  • Visualize yourself on the day giving your presentation. You’re looking and feeling confident up there at the lectern. You’re speaking clearly and slowly. The audience is listening intently and is thoroughly engaged. You’re enjoying yourself!

Roll with Mistakes

As much as you want to be perfect, you don’t want to be the robot speaker who does everything correct and plays it safe. That’s boring. Plus, striving to be perfect is a recipe for failure. Instead, strive for excellence. Doesn’t that make you feel better? At the end of the day, you’re doing the best you can.

Don’t worry if your slide show isn’t working. Your whole speech is not ruined. If you forgot your USB stick at work and can’t get back there to retrieve it, you should know that speech so well that you can give it without the need for slides.

Whatever it is, roll with it.

Repeat an Affirmation in Your Head

You are your own worst enemy. No, that’s not the affirmation. It means we are ultimately the hardest on ourselves. If you repeat negative thoughts in your head all the time, guess what? Sooner or later, you’re going to believe them.

Switch it. Instead of thinking “I’m a terrible at this,” go for “I love presenting!” Or, okay, maybe take baby steps: “I like presenting.”

“I’m a great presenter. My message rocks!” Notice how I’m using the present tense. You need to think in the present. You aren’t convincing yourself that you will be a great presenter someday. You are — right at this moment.

Focus on an Engaged Audience Member

There will be many engaged viewers in the audience, and they’re here because they want to hear what you have to say. The majority of them are probably thinking, “I’m glad it’s you and not me up there!” Well, they haven’t read this book.

Find a compadre in the audience who is giving you nonverbal cues like nodding or otherwise looks really engaged. He’s your friend, and we know our friends make us feel better. Give your speech to him for a few seconds, and then find someone else. Take in the entire audience and find others. Find people who will nonverbally boost you up and make you feel good. After all, they want you to succeed and want to hear what you have to say.

Slow Down

When we’re fearful, we speed up. Could be because our heart is beating faster and we just want to get the speech over with and sit down. Maybe you already have a habit of speaking quickly, and it gets even quicker when you’re afraid.

Remember that you have a fabulous presentation, and the audience wants to hear you and your message. When you’re done, don’t rush off the stage.

When we speak slowly, we slow down our breathing, which helps calm us. Practice taking a breath — a good one — after each sentence. Speak to the end of the sentence.