Sweaty palms. Dry mouth. Tight throat, Shallow breathing. Pounding heart. Tense shoulders. Butterflies in the stomach.
Do you recognize any of these common elements of stage fright? Congratulations! You are a human!
Now that you have passed the emotional CAPTCHA test, let’s talk more about how these effects of stress and anxiety affect our performance, and what we can do about it.
Public speaking is scary for most people.
Everyone from newbie presenters to a Broadway veteran experiences some degree of nervousness before talking in front of people.
Whether you are in a meeting room, on a video conference, or on a phone call, stage fright is a real thing. Our body goes through a complex series of chemical and physiologic changes as the emotional nervous system reacts to the stimulus in front of us.
Why does this happen?
This “fight or flight” response is our body’s way of preparing for a stressful event. The mechanics are so ancient, though, that our body can’t tell the difference between preparing to fight a mountain lion, or being cut off in traffic. So the stress response isn’t always helpful.
The limbic system and autonomic nervous system are the biggest players here. For those interested, here is a more detailed summary of the components of the Emotional Nervous System.
And get this: The body responds the same way to a perceived threat as it does to an actual threat. So even if there is no real reason to be nervous, our minds often convince us otherwise. And then we’re an unfocused, clammy mess.
Let’s also acknowledge a beautiful component of performance anxiety, which is your passion, work ethic, and standards: you wouldn’t feel nervous if you didn’t care about doing a good job. So give yourself a little pat on the back for that part.
How does it affect your performance?
Optimal presenting (be it in a meeting, on a call, or in an intimidating conversation) requires the speaker to be grounded, present, and focused. Physical tension, racing heart rate, and shallow breathing are therefore not at all conducive to your best communication.
Your voice can get thin, quiet, dry, shaky, meek, monotone.
Or it could go the other way and you bluff and bluster in a way that feels too big and disingenuous.
You can lose your place and forget what you were about to say.
Your body language may reveal your lack of confidence through visible tension, fidgeting, or folding inwards.
You feel like you are choking on your words.
You might even forget the main reasons you are out there talking in the first place.
So what’s the solution?
There are two goals here, and three basic places to focus your attention. First, you want to short-circuit the fight or flight response to the best of your ability, and channel that nervous energy into your communication. And most important, you want to effectively get your message across.
Notice I said “channel the energy”, not squelch it. It is not desirable (or possible) to quell nervous excited energy, so the goal is to redirect it so it serves rather than hinders us.
1. Be prepared
This probably goes without saying, but preparation is the most important factor in feeling confident presenting. Know your stuff, practice it out loud, and have your notes ready to go.
2. Shift your body
Slow, deep, relaxed breathing calms the nervous system, and helps reduce or reverse the effects described above. It also helps you return your awareness to your body and the present moment.
Take some slow abdominal breaths. Allow your belly to expand as you inhale, feeling movement down deep into your lower torso. As you exhale, the abdomen gently moves back inward toward the spine. Avoid lifting or tensing your upper chest or shoulders.
Breathing in for 4 counts and out for 8 counts is a proven way to calm the nervous system. Do this about 10 times as part of your preparation
Pro tip: you might want to sit in a chair and grab underneath the sides of the seat with your hands. This effectively pins your shoulders so they can’t rise up when you inhale.
Ground yourself and let go. Feel your feet on the floor. Sense the weight of your body on the chair. Intend to connect your body to the earth, even just in your imagination. Relax your shoulders. unclench your jaw, peel your tongue off the roof of your mouth. Did I mention, breathe? Scan your body for anywhere you might be holding tension. Notice the tension. Look around and name 10 things you see in the room. Get present, and as calm as you are able.
Trust yourself. When you’re speaking, don’t be afraid of natural pauses. Take the time to breathe — you deserve it! And if you are rushed, you are more likely to appear frantic, which in turn makes the audience tense. If you lose your place, trust you will find it again, because you prepared this!
3. Shift your thoughts
This is really the bottom line: stage fright occurs when we focus on ourselves, rather than our message. We think, How do I look? How do I sound? Am I making a fool of myself? Am I going to forget anything? How are they perceiving me? Me, me, me! No wonder we get scared – we get caught in a loop of unanswerable, anxiety-provoking questions, taking us farther and farther away from the reason we are there: to share our material.
So that’s the biggest shift to make – turn your focus away from yourself, and onto your listeners and the content you want to share with them. If you’re presenting in a meeting, look at your audience. Direct your thoughts to return to the content you have prepared. If you’re talking to someone, focus on your conversational partner — and whether they seem to be tracking what you are saying — and on your intentions for the conversation.
One final point. It’s very rare that a listener is sitting there wanting the presenter to suck. The people you’re talking to genuinely want you to succeed. Even if they lack normal empathy, they still want to get the most out what you have to say. Trust that the audience is on your side.
Want some personalized guidance and strategies, created specifically for your individual needs? Get in touch to schedule a session!