Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
January 24, 2013 9:42 PM

Overcoming Stage Fright

Whether it's a boardroom or a convention center, it's common (and normal) to have stage fright.

Volumes of books have been written about overcoming stage fright. These include books that have been written by psychologists, neuroscientists, performance coaches and more. Basically, people who are both way smarter (and way more qualified) than me to write about what happens between your ears that makes you all weak in the knees, when it comes to getting up on a stage for any kind of presentation.

What do I know?

In 2006, I was asked to speak at a full-day leadership event that featured Dr. Phil. It was an event that hosted thousands of people. While that entire day is now a blur to me, I remember a couple of distinctly powerful moments (all of them based on massive anxiety attacks). My most vivid memory is that I was following Chuck Martin. As he was onstage, I remember being behind the scenes, looking at the stage with the countdown on the confidence monitor reading fifteen minutes left, and then shifting my sights to the exit sign on the door. I was literally contemplating the idea of making a run for the exit. I let the anxiety and stress get to me. Not just in that moment, but in the weeks building up to that event.

Overcoming the fear.

How did I overcome the fear? The fact that I didn't make a dash for the exit, took and deep breath and went for it could be an indicator that I got over my fear, but that simply isn't the case. The truth is that I still get nervous. I'm just better at recognizing what it is and harnessing it, rather than allowing it to paralyze me. Since 2006, I have consistently given anywhere between fifty and seventy presentations a year. In training for that first big leadership event, I worked with a slew of presentation coaches and even a stand-up comedian to ensure that I was "getting it right." While I received some great techniques and tactics that elevated my presentation skills, I'll never forget what one of my coaches said, when I told them that I was deathly nervous about the entire prospect of presenting on that stage. He looked at me, admitted that he had never coached someone who had to speak to an audience of that size but, regardless, that if I wasn't nervous, I was "dead from the shoulders up."  

It's not natural.

Our mind (and body) react so adversely to public speaking, because it isn't a natural and intuitive act for humans. The true masters of speaking are the ones who make it look so natural. It's not a gift for the majority of great presenters... it's an act. It is something they have worked on and nurtured after many events and putting themselves in many different scenarios. So, after seven years of professional presenting (I did several events before the one with Dr. Phil, so it's probably more years than that), I have distilled how to overcome stage fright down to two key factors. And, no, they are not about rituals, breathing techniques or the like.

  • Key factor #1: Basic presentation skills. The majority of people fear public speaking so much that they spend zero to little time learning and preparing for what the act entails. They think that if they ignore the basic skills required to deliver a message in a public forum, that they can just cram the night before, lean on a lectern and struggle their way through it or simply wing it. A presentation (of any kind) is a performance. If you don't understand the basics of this performance: this includes everything from how the stage is set-up and flows to understanding the basics around body language and vocal delivery, you're doomed. As scared as you may be, you will gain a ton of confidence by understanding what it's like to walk on a stage, have proper posture and body language and working on your actual voice. Ignoring all of that will not help you overcome your fear.
  • Key factor #2: It's all about your content. When you know your content, everything else is easy. If you put a gun to my head and said, "speak for sixty minutes about why brands need to care about their marketing," I could do it. Something tells me that if someone did the same thing to you, you could do it too. Why? Whatever industry you serve, you know your content. Presenters are usually nervous because they don't know their content well enough. This is why people write up and then read a speech (never do this) or cram PowerPoint slides full of text (never do this either). They're worried that they may forget something. Here's the dirty little secret: we don't forget the things we know.

One last truth about stage fright...

Most people don't speak as often as I do. This means that they have no need to really study the art of presenting and, this also means that they rarely have enough time to learn their content well-enough to know it and be comfortable with it. Presentation skills coaches will try to offer up breathing techniques and other tactics to help divert your nervous energy somewhere else. Sure, those may act as band-aids while the anxiety gets the better of you, but you can (and will) get better if you understand the basics in presentation skills and take the necessary time to make yourself as comfortable as possible with your content.

What happens next?

When you take the time to learn about presentations and learn your content, the anxiety you feel changes and adapts. So, now when I get nervous, it's mostly because I want the audience to to learn something... to be moved. It's a different kind of anxiety and pressure that takes the doom and gloom of, "I hope they don't judge me," into the world of, "I want to blow this crowd's mind!" So, no, the anxiety doesn't go away, it just becomes a positive force that will allow you to strive for a better presentation than the one you gave the day before.

What are some of the techniques that have made you a better presenter?

(special thanks to Gini Dietrich who inspired this blog post by asking me if I still get nervous when presenting during a webinar that we recorded earlier today).

By Mitch Joel


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