“A palpitating heart which might just thud out of your chest as it bolts like Bolt, sweaty palms which won’t be able to save anyone in case they are falling off a cliff and vision that was perfect till morning but now seems to have become hypermetropic all of a sudden (you can’t see your own notes but you can see the far off faces of people, waiting to rip you apart with their laughter, or worse – boredom) and a stutter that presumably no amount of speech therapy can correct”.
No this is not the effect of a highly thrilling horror movie. These are the symptoms of stage fright!
Did you know – ‘fear of public speaking’ is one of the top 3 most feared things around the world, closely followed by the fear of arachnoids (spiders) and flying creepy-crawlies.
So, if you do have this mind numbing, jaw locking fear of the stage and stage performances, and have found yourself tongue tied and subsequently embarrassed – you are not alone. Millions of people have been in your shoes! It is absolutely normal. And curable. Albeit with a lot of practice. I studied in a Hindi medium school till my Grade 6 and lived in a village (my entire school life). If I could do it; I can vouch you are better than me (from a position perspective).
Becoming a better speaker is lot like cooking peas pulao. Initially your peas will be overcooked or your rice will be undercooked. But eventually you will get there! As I said, practice!
But let me first share with you a very small anecdote.
“You know Charles Darwin right? The celebrated evolutionary biologist. He wanted to test the fear of threats on the human psyche and he went to the snake exhibit in a zoo. He put his face very near to the glass barrier with a snake ready to strike at the other end – while trying to remain perfectly calm. He even told himself – there is no danger, the enclosure has a glass seal. But it did not work. Every time the snake struck, he found himself invariably withdrawing.
He noted down in his diary that his will power and rational thinking were all powerless in the face of fear, against an imaginary fear that he had not witnessed before.”
The same happens with you when you are on a stage (or doing something you feel afraid of doing), feeling super afraid and wishing you could simple vanish from the spot instead! You are probably afraid of being laughed at, of being judged. It is indeed quite scary. But imagine having overcome the fear? Wouldn’t it be so much bliss and a highly positive spurt of confidence?
To find a solution, let us first go deeper into the problem and identify the root, before we uproot it totally. So, why does speaking scare us so much?
Research says it is the fear of loss of reputation that instigates stage fright. People get worried about things like – what others might think of them! What if they get bored!What if they don’t understand the content! And so on… As human beings, we worry an awful lot about what others think of us. And it translates into this need to be perfect for everyone. I believe we often tend to make things very tough for us without ever realizing, we could ease them out just as easily, with slight to massive effort. But there is always a way.
Let me tell you upfront –You can’t make everyone happy. If it is not your style then it is your content. But someone will always be pissed and wary of you. It’s okay! You need to work for your believers. Not your critics who enjoy pulling you down. I have been called names too at times; when some people have not been able to get my sarcasm or laugh at the weirdness of life and at their own self. But should that stop me? Should I be afraid of speaking because few people can’t take a joke? Remember my Golden Rule : ‘Spontaneity = Fearlessness’ . It has worked wonderfully well for me in last 16 years (My work in PICTURES)
A few more probably reasons why stage fright is such a prominent fear is – high stakes. If a lot in your life depends on that particular presentation or speech, you will definitely be jittery with clammy hands and stuttering voice.
There is biology involved too, behind all your symptoms. The adrenalin rush, the butterflies in the stomach, the dizziness, the vision problems – are all ways to prepare your body for “fight or flight”; the natural mechanism of the human body to cope with perceived danger. The brain merely perceives it to be a fight or flight situation because of all your raging hormones.
But, is speaking really that dangerous? Here are a few things you can try and see if your fear still exists:
I have always loved this quote: “Over prepare and then go with the flow”. One of the biggest reasons why people feel afraid of communicating is the fear of irrelevance and lack of confidence. That is, they are not sure of their content being important to their listeners. This makes them jitter and stutter.
A good idea is to do a lot of preparation. I am not suggesting memorizing your presentation word for word. All you have to do is – be extremely aware of everything you have decided to talk about. Become a pro on that topic, an expert who could do a PhD on the topic, if asked to. Go through all your materials, anticipate probable questions and your answers, present before a friend / colleague to check if it sounds good etc.
The confidence in your content will make you less nervous. Of course, there is no way to completely take away the butterflies in the stomach till you actually stop believing there is danger out there 🙂
2. Be early for your presentation
Arriving late to your venue can add to your nervousness as you then know that you have already made the audience a little hostile towards you. That can’t be good for your shaky confidence anyway!
Besides, if you come early, you can get yourself acclimatized to the situation and give yourself time to become comfortable. Check the sound system, the projectors, the microphones etc. and ensure that the technicalities are fine. They form a big part of your presentation.Come in early when the auditorium/room is empty and take a feel. Walk around to see which positions give you the best view and impact. And also to find out corners you can hide in, if at all the need arises!
Kidding! Read on to know why you won’t need hiding corners at all.
3. The four Fs
It stands for – Find Four Friendly Faces
If you are having trouble making eye contact with a lot of people, don’t do it. Right in the beginning, you can identify a few people who are nodding and smiling and are a little more receptive to you. They will become your support for the next few minutes or hours.
You can talk while looking at them so as to not lose it while talking. If you can take a friend to the session, ask them to sit somewhere in the front few rows. Locate them and keep looking at them from time to time. Their non-verbal assurance that you are doing okay will give you a lot of courage to keep talking.
I remember one my cousins sharing this with me while we were kids. It was a small seminar organized by the local club and was probably not going to be aired anywhere, and very few people attended anyway. But for her too, the fear of public speaking comes first, followed by the fear of lizards! But she managed pretty well that day. A little stutter and a few ‘ers’ and ‘ums’ here and there but she pulled it off; even got good applause at the end.
She confessed later that throughout the session she was looking at her father who was smiling at her from a distance and encouraging her to keep talking. His confidence just translated on to her. And I must tell you – she has gotten better with time! She is a lawyer now and makes such speeches in front of formidable judges in courts every other day.
While I would say, looking at one person and doing the whole speech isn’t a good thing. You obviously wouldn’t want it to look like a one-to-one conversation. But, that’s a beginning. You need to sweat these techniques out.
4. Turn around
This sneaky little hack works brilliantly for me, when I need a pause or can’t recall what I am supposed to say next. It happens to everyone. Speakers tend to blank out a few times while speaking. Pretty normal! I generally do not stand at the podium while addressing my audience. I like to walk around the aisles and be among the participants. It helps me connect better. And that’s how I use this hack.
So, when I need to remember something, or control myself from making a remark (sometimes, they just crop up you know, but are not appropriate to be said in front of the audience)- I simply turn my back to the audience so they can’t see my face. That gives me the leeway to compose myself and get back on track. And it also creates a pause where the audience can think about whatever is being discussed, like a quick recap.
This, breaking the eye contact momentarily, can help you regain confidence. If you are more of a podium speaker, you can try gracefully looking at the presentation, pretend to be lost deep in thought, while you are actually recovering your thoughts! 🙂
5. See yourself. Listen to yourself
Ask someone to video shoot your speech while you are practicing. Or you can check your old videos of other speeches too. This will help you come to terms with your own flaws as a speaker and you can work on them.
See if there is too much hand waving or a bad posture. Or maybe you tend to use too many fillers like “um”, “basically”, “so”, “aaaa”. Checking your own video can help you identify the quirks and fix them. Listening to your own fillers will help you siphon them out. Also, you will be able to figure out the voice modulations that work. Stage fright deepens when your audience starts zoning out. And your audience starts zoning out when you start boring them. A monotone for a speech would definitely bore them. So, practice voice modulations! Knowing when to raise your voice, and when to drop down to a whisper – are all signs of good communication.
If you are aware of your quirks and you consciously try to phase them out, you will know that there are a fewer things the audience is laughing about. Wouldn’t that be reassuring?
If you want, I have some excellent tips for becoming a better speaker.
I have come up with these tips after much practice and more than 2500 hours spent talking to large and small audiences as a motivational speaker. And with that experience I can tell you that – unfortunately, there is no short cut to overcoming this fear. Like all other fears, you have to face it – head on! You will have to be relentless and not give up on yourself. I would say – focus on the content and try to breathe. Nothing works like a gush of air into your brain to clear things out! It instantly calms you down. I say, deep breaths are highly underrated in the domain of overcoming any sort of fear.
But, let me also tell you – it is worth the effort. Because once you have mastered this skill, you will feel so much better and more confident about yourself. On top of the world, for you can communicate your thoughts in a more polished way and become a better speaker!
So, go kick that stage fright out of your system! Go & burn that stage.