You look out at the audience during your big presentation at the all-hands meeting. A frown on someone’s face distracts you and then it’s all you see. Suddenly your mind goes as blank as a newly fabricated computer chip. You gaze at the audience and wonder: Why is everyone looking at me?
Stage fright can be an occupational hazard no matter who you are. Three quarters of us fear speaking in public, and over 80 percent of actors say they’ve experienced high anxiety while performing, according to a poll by Backstage.com.
So what’s the big deal? Why not leave public speaking to those showboats who love to get up and perform? You’ve got work to do. But public speaking is a career requirement for almost everyone. “People who don’t figure it out can hit a glass ceiling,” says Sims Wyeth, a former actor and acting teacher for New York University’s Tisch School who coaches executives on public speaking. It’s especially true for those trying to reinvent themselves in new careers or going solo in a new business venture.
There are ways to manage stage fright. Even if you are well into your career it’s not too late to find a solution. How to slay the beast? Deep preparation can make the difference, says consultant Wyeth, who recommends three steps to successful presentations.
3 Cardinal Rules for a Frightless Performance
1. Rehearse under performance-like pressure. Why this works isn’t a simple matter of the old saw about getting to Carnegie Hall, “practice, practice, practice.”
There is some neuroscience involved, Wyeth says. “Rehearsal moves new information from the frontal cortex to the cerebellum, the part of the brain that enables us to perform lightning fast mind-body activities,” Wyeth explains. Your rehearsals will be most effective if you “stress-test” your speech, he says. Don’t just ask your mother to listen. Ask friends you can trust to be objective to listen to your run-through. Invite a skeptic, someone you can count on to be critical, or someone you know isn’t good at paying attention.
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Stress-test complete, you’ve set yourself up for success. But what happens when your information-crammed cerebellum loses its charge in the middle of a performance, leaving you speechless? That’s when you turn to step 2.
2. Give yourself a mantra. You’ve rehearsed like Olivier and you know your part cold. Still it happens – you lose your cool. One way to regain your poise is to have a single-word directive that reminds you that you can manage your role. Like mental comfort food, your mantra gives you a moment to regain your poise. “Research suggests that one word self-instruction works best,” Wyeth says. Try a word like "smooth" or "easy."
3. Assume an assertive body posture. Stand evenly on two feet facing the audience making eye contact with one person at a time. Don’t scan every face or go overboard by strutting like a courtroom lawyer on TV or a college professor trying to wake up a roomful of freshmen. That’s “peacockery,” Wyeth says, and it comes off as fakery.
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“You have to be yourself, but a confident version of yourself. Don’t shrink or hunch over.” Long before Facebook tech exec Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In hit the vocabulary, Harvard professor Amy Cuddy did a TED talk urging presenters to strike a power pose, that’s garnered 5 million views.
What Good Actors Know
Anna Katarina, who plays dress shop owner Isabelle Jeunet in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, has no problem striking the pose. Still, even after decades on the stage and in movies she admits she still has bouts of stage fright.
“I usually feel it just before going on stage or before the camera rolls. Especially with stage performances, you just pray that your brain will be functioning fully and remembering everything. We're taught to use that nervous energy and turn it into excitement -- excitement about having an opportunity to throw ourselves into a highly creative moment.”
Katarina says she gets over stage fright by connecting with her part. Once she gets into that zone “I'm too busy with all of that to be overly aware of the folks staring at me.”
Getting Back on the Horse
Just as actors know that everybody flubs an audition from time to time, accept that someday you may miss the mark. Bill Swislow, chief technology officer of Cars.com, says that one of his first public appearances came while he was a student journalist in Madison, Wisconsin.
“It was a disaster,” he says, remembering how he stumbled nervously through a prepared speech. He rewound the experience in his head many times. He learned that a prepared speech can disconnect you from your audience. He knew the best speeches include preparation, but that without an off-the-cuff element it’s just reading. He vowed that he would never do a speech that he felt ambivalent about.
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“I'm sure there are people for whom stage fright is a source of focus and energy, but I'm in what I take to be the larger camp, for whom it's a perverse self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Swislow, who often gives speeches to automobile groups and technology forms. “ The more anxious you are about the quality of your performance, the more you make it bad. Now I assume I'll never be that great, but I'll not be that bad either.”
Prepare, stand tall, have a mantra to calm yourself. Don’t over-reach, don’t over-worry. Accept that you’ll at least achieve a solid position in the middle of the pack.
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