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Mastering Stage Fright

In my workshops and seminars, whenever I ask people if they experience stage fright when they have to deliver a presentation, the hands always shoot up. It’s practically unanimous.

Following are “Ruth’s Truths” about stage fright:

  • Stage fright is unavoidable.
  • Stage fright is your friend.
  • Stage fright can be controlled.

Let’s address these one by one. First, stage fright is unavoidable. Everyone gets it and I worry about the ones who don’t. What it means is that the stakes are high, that your performance is important to you and you want to do the best job you can. Another thing to remember is that you are putting on a show and you are the star. If you think about your presentation as a performance with you in the starring role, you can begin to take some of the mystery about why you get stage fright. The fact is that it is natural and normal to feel it. All actors and professional speakers get it. The difference between them and the average person is that they know how to manage it. They understand that fighting and railing against it only makes it worse. I advise my clients to surrender to it, to accept that while it lessens with experience, it never goes away entirely.

Which brings me to the next saying, stage fright is your friend. Now, folks can hardly believe it when I tell them this. They want to know how something that can feel so awful can be a friend. Sort of reminds them, I think, of that foul-tasting medicine from their youth. But it’s true. Stage fright is a manifestation of the fight or flight response, that wonderful component of our autonomic nervous system that helps us to run away from danger or stay to fight it off. What your mind and body are telling you when you begin to feel the first pangs of stage fright, is that there is risk ahead, you need to perfom well and if you don’t, there’ll be consequences.

Stage fright, properly channeled, is actually quite useful. You may know that in fight or flight, the chemicals that course through our body help to make us stronger, faster and more agile. We’ve all heard stories of people in life or death situations suddenly exhibiting superhuman powers. What is less commonly known is that it also makes us smarter, better able to think quickly and make split-second decisions. It gives us an edge. But only if we’re prepared. For example, a person who is in great physical shape will be much better able to fight off or flee from danger than someone who is out of shape because that first person is prepared. By the same token, a person who has practiced their presentation thoroughly or who has a great deal of experience – or both, preferably – will be much better able to deal with the inevitable challenges that such a stressful environment brings.

And this, of course, takes us to the final saying, stage fright can be controlled. Practice and rehearsal are the antidotes to severe stage fright. Unfortunately these are the things that get thrown out in the presentation process. This is a result of a couple of realities: people are really busy and rehearsing is boring and tedious – sad but oh so true. People also have the idea that they can over-rehearse and end up with a canned-sounding presentation. While some presentations may sound canned or unnatural, too much rehearsal is never the reason. I have never seen someone rehearse too much, but I’ve seen plenty of the opposite and the results are disastrous. Proper and thorough rehearsal – and this means standing up and saying it out loud from beginning to end several times – makes a huge difference.. It allows the speaker to remain in control, to know where he or she is going, and, most importantly, to recover from the inevitable mistakes that occur in every presentation. So if you’re one of those who thinks mouthing the words on the way to the gig is enough, be warned that it just won’t do. And today, with technology present at many presentations, rehearsal is more involved than ever before.

Stage fright is a natural part of delivering a presentation. It makes a speaker exciting and interesting to watch. Understanding this concept as well as spending considerable time and effort preparing your presentation will guarantee a performance that has folks asking you back, giving you business, and identifying you as an expert in your field.

Tastes awful, works great.

Copyright 2001 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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