Overcoming Stage Fright while Public Speaking or Presenting
As a teacher, actor and musician, people constantly tell me how impressed they are that I can talk so comfortably in front of an audience. This amazes me. "You can talk to me, can't you?" I ask, and I'll inevitably get some explanation as to how talking face to face with them doesn't at all resemble getting a little farther away from them and addressing a few more people.
The truth is, the situation does change when your audience grows. But for every obstacle that appears with a new listener, another one vanishes. Understanding this makes public speaking less intimidating. Have you ever stopped to consider that carrying on a conversation with someone requires you to elicit responses from the other person? I've always struggled with that. For me, standing up in front of a crowd simplifies my situation because I don't have to persuade an immediate response from the crowd.
If you find the path of least resistance, you can let public speech work in your favor. Your office presentation or upcoming lecture shouldn't frighten you. Instead, consider a few tricks of communication to help connect with your audience, and your job will become a thousand times easier.
It may sound like over-simplified advice, but you have to control your physical needs first. Nervousness creates tension. Tension leads to stress. Stress leads to feelings of illness. Fear leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering...
...excuse me. Sometimes I channel Yoda.
Your digestive tract contains some of the largest clusters of nerve endings in your body. Stress can activate your nerves, which causes the infamous butterflies-in-the-stomach sensation that feels more like you're going to throw up. Which sometimes you do. And that doesn't help your situation.
So if the tingly fear starts creeping through your gut, take a deep breath. This also has a physiological rationale--when you exhale, your muscles have a tendency to relax. So draw in a full breath of air, and let it out slowly. Focus on what's happening in your body. It's a light sensation, but you should feel stress ease slightly. You can also put yourself in a lighthearted mood. Talk with friends before you get in the spot light. Tell a joke. Channel Yoda. Psychologists have found that people who force themselves to clench their fist for a long period of time will start to feel anger. It works with other emotions, too--acting out the physical manifestation of being calm can help ease your mind into the situation.
Consider yourself as your audience
Whatever you do, don't picture your audience in their underwear. While this mis-advice may have begun due to a need to mentally elevate yourself above the audience, you can't use up that much brainpower and still concentrate on what you need to do.
Rather, what you should do is find a subconscious way of communicating with your audience. Since they probably won't interact with you, this may sound difficult, but it really isn't. Everyone who speaks in public has heard someone else speak before. You have been part of an audience. Take some time to evaluate your experience.
Odds are unless you've written for Mystery Science Theatre: 3000, you've always wanted to see a good show. No one ever says, "We should go see that new movie; I heard it was terrible!" If you've ever taken a class or sat through a presentation at the office, did you want your presenter to be boring? I doubt it. Many people give speeches with the fear that the audience puts pressure on them to be entertaining, but the audience is on your side--even if they don't quite realize it. Connect with them on that level. Put yourself in their seat.
Audiences forgive, and they forgive more easily when you seem sympathetic to their situation. I constantly comment on my students' expressions during class. It makes them realize I'm paying attention to them, and it helps me understand how they're reacting to me. The audience is on your side. Be grateful. If they weren't, speaking in public could be stressful.
Finally, Don't Overlook the Art of Self-Deprecation
One of the most famous comedians of the twentieth century, Johnny Carson, would often tell jokes that fell flat. The audience didn't always find him funny--every comedian knows that, even the giants. If Carson didn't get the laugh he expected, his next joke would be on himself. He made a name for himself partly by mocking his own bad jokes in grandiose gestures of failure. He seemed to have so much fun with this that people suspect he often told bad jokes intentionally, just for the chance to tell a joke about telling a bad joke.
Carson was talented, but not unique. All comedians mock themselves for their failure. Contrary to what people told you in Public Speaking 101 or Acting Class or whatever, self-deprecation does not signify weakness. Quite the opposite, actually. It takes a strong, confident person to target themselves.
If you make a mistake, don't take yourself seriously. Take a moment to allow yourself to look foolish. You don't even have to be witty about it. Your audience will appreciate the laugh, and since you can connect with them, you'll appreciate it as well. Laughing at your mistakes will make you more comfortable. Trying to keep straight through them will end up making you look unintentionally foolish, which will add to your nerves. Look at politicians--look at George Bush! He's not any worse than the average speaker, it's just that he doesn't react when he says something funny.
So calm down, put yourself in the audience's shoes, expect a good show from yourself, and maybe even prepare a joke or two to throw out when you stumble--because you will. Everyone does. Public appearances come naturally to me. They've never really made me nervous, and I once forgot a line from a play I was in until I started seeing the crew change the set. Unfortunately, because it comes easy, I can't delve into the finer points of stage fright simply because I don't understand it. But I know you'll survive, and so do you.
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