5 tips for overcoming stage fright

by Olivia Mitchell

stage fright bookcover And as the curtain rose on the first night, I had a flash of intense vertigo, like I was going to pass out and couldn’t find my center. It sent me into a cold-sweat panic.

This is a quote from Jason Alexander, most well-known for his role as George Costanza in Seinfeld, from a book called Stage Fright: 40 Stars Tell You How They Beat America’s #1 Fear. I’ve been sent the book to review and I’ve highlighted below some of the best tips for overcoming stage fright when you’re presenting.

1. It’s not about you

Many presentation coaches say “The slides are not the presentation, you are”. I agree with this up to the point of saying the slides are not the presentation. But neither are you. The presentation is the experience that you create for the audience.

Jason Alexander attributes his recovery to learning this:

When I began to make the story the most important thing, I became much less the focus of my concerns. I realized that I was one small element on the stage, working with my colleagues to tell our audience a story. The information is what people want, the experience is what they want. They’re not there for me.

2. Dealing with things that go wrong

It’s nice to visualize your presentation going perfectly, but it’s not reality. And if you only visualize things going well, it can really throw you when they don’t.

Lawrence Beron, actor and stand-up comedian, says:

Part of the preparation is foreseeing the possibility of problems and not being thrown when they occur. Because they are going to occur. I don’t even call it “going wrong”. It’s what’s going to happen.

3. Let go of people liking you

This is what most of us are really concerned about – will the audience like us and what we have to say. It’s a natural reaction to the public speaking situation but not useful to reducing your nerves. Carlos Alazraqui, another actor and stand-up comedian says:

If you’re comfortable with yourself, confident in your abilities, and you’re not worried about the outcome – whether or not people like you – that allows you to relax. [emphasis added]

4. Play with the importance of the event

Jim Bouton, baseball player and now professional speaker, used to get very nervous before games. Until Ralph Terry, a veteran pitcher told him:

“When you’re out there on the mound today, kid, just remember one thing: No matter what happens, win or lose, five hundred million Chinese don’t care.” [quote slightly changed to remove potentially offensive words]

But when Jim relaxed too much he had to take the opposite approach:

There have been some situations where I didn’t feel nervous, I didn’t feel butterflies, and I had to manufacture butterflies to get a better performance. While pitching with the yankees, for example, games became routine after a while. So I would create an imaginary dire circumstance, I’d put the welfare of mankind at stake.

Now with public speaking, if he doesn’t feel nervous:

I spend some time alone, and talk to myself about the importance of what’s coming up.

5. You should be making mistakes

Jim Bouton was coaching a professional piano player who would get so nervous during performances that she would mistakes.

I said “What are you afraid of?” and she said “I’m afraid of making a mistake.” I said “Well, you should be making a few mistakes.” She said What do you mean?” I said “ If you never make a mistake, that means you’re not playing all out. You’re not playing as open and free as you can. You’re playing too tight, too controlled – that’s not the way to play. You’d be better off having a full-out recital with half a dozen mistakes, than having a mistake-free boring recital. Because the one in which you’ve allowed yourself to make mistakes is going to be more dynamic, more powerful and more musical.”

So it with speaking. If your goal is to make a word-perfect, mistake-free presentation you’re likely to give a boring presentation because the life will have gone out of it.

These are just some of the nuggets from the interviews in Stage Fright: 40 Stars Tell You How They Beat America’s #1 Fear. What have you learnt that has helped you to get over stage fright?

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Pam Heath July 18, 2010 at 2:28 am

Hi Olivia: Jim Bouton’s “You should be making mistakes” is also very useful as a management tool. I insisted on mistakes when I managed a team in a high-stakes environment where mistakes could cost the company lots of money. I had a great team.They didn’t often make mistakes, but they all certainly worried about it, and I knew that worry also kept them from being intelligently risk-taking and creative–and from doing even better work. So we started “make a mistake a day.” I’d go around looking for the biggest mistake of the day, chiding those who weren’t trying their best to make mistakes and congratulating the biggest mistake of the day & talking about what we could all learn from it. Everyone loosened up, had more fun, did better work, grew more in their jobs, held themselves more accountable. They even made mistakes sometimes. When people have permission to fail, great things happen.

Reply

Olivia Mitchell July 18, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Hi Pam

Wow! That’s a great example of the power of making mistakes. I often work with very careful speakers. I tell them that I want them to make mistakes as they deliver their presentation. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t but they definitely connect more with their audience.

Thank you for sharing your example.

Olivia

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Rajiv September 24, 2012 at 2:13 am

thanks! actually your comment is so inspiring that i’m really looking forward to try out what you did! I have a seminar in college next week and I’m scared like hell! Currently I’m preparing with my topic, I just have to present it… Thanks!

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Fred E. Miller July 21, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Good points here.

Keep in mind, many people WANT you to be successful at your presentation.

They are glad it is YOU and not THEM at the lectern!

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Olivia Mitchell July 21, 2010 at 8:29 pm

Hi Fred

Yes, those are two excellent points to add to the collection.

Olivia

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larissa January 27, 2012 at 9:50 am

im afrid to go on stage in front of a really big crowed.and i need to get over my fear so how can i do that before i go to college next year.

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Olivia Mitchell January 27, 2012 at 9:57 am

Hi Larissa
First of all know that there are many people who feel like you do. It is nothing unusual. And good on you for deciding you need to get over this fear. That alone takes courage. There are more articles on overcoming fear on this website (look under Topics in the sidebar and click on Nervousness). And if you’re really determined contact me through my contact form and I will send you a draft of an ebook I am writing on overcoming the fear of public speaking.
Go well
Olivia

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nash October 6, 2012 at 8:41 pm

Hi Olivia
I have the same problem as Larissa.
Can you please send me also,your e-book on overcoming the fear of public speaking?
Thank you.

sea July 30, 2010 at 2:47 am

Great points and great quotes. Thank you! And yet, as many times as I repeat them to myself… I still get so physically nervous! hehe. Practice I suppose :)

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Pam Heath July 30, 2010 at 3:45 am

Yes, sea, taking every opportunity to speak can really help. Certainly did for me–really grew my confidence and ability to handle whatever came up. I also know that I’m less nervous when I’ve prepped and rehearsed properly (which is really about respecting my audience).

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Olivia Mitchell July 30, 2010 at 7:49 pm

Hi Sea
Practice is definitely helpful – as Pam has confirmed. And here are two other points:

1. You’re likely to always have some nervousness when you present http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/nervousness/fear-of-public-speaking-better-speaker/
2. Look at what you are saying to yourself about how you have to perform when you’re speaking http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/nervousness/no-perfect-presentation/

There are lots of other posts on reducing nervousness on my website. You can check them out here:
http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/category/nervousness/
Olivia

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Brian Clough August 19, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Why do we insist on labeling the physical sensations we experience before a presentation, as ‘nervousness’ or ‘stage fright’ ?

In what way exactly does that help us?

How about simply observing the reality of what’s happening, instead of making up little stories? For example noticing the butterflies in the abdomen, the elevated heart rate, the sweaty feet as one great presenter used to experience … whatever.

Surely they’re just sensations? Mostly non-life-threatening.

Funny how many of them resemble a state we label ‘excitement.’

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Olivia Mitchell August 19, 2010 at 6:28 pm

Hi Brian
I quite agree with you that the nervousness that we feel can also be interpreted as excitement, and that’s one strategy that we can use to help.

We make up stories and give labels to things, because that’s what humans do!

Olivia

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Brian Clough August 19, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Indeed we do Olivia.

As humans we also sometimes have the ability to become conscious of this labeling behaviour.

If we notice it’s not helping, we can change it.

I’m not saying it’s easy, or even instinctive to do so.

But neither is public speaking!

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nicky browne February 18, 2011 at 1:41 am

Hi Olivia,
As a mature student, I am sitting here in front of my computer and have been told that the best thesis/study to complete my diploma in Speech and Drama would be on William Wordsworth and the sonnet – I am so not inspired – I have really really tried to muster up some excitement and enthusiasm but it is not working – I think that he is a great guy and we are blessed to have his poetry but……..

… I am fascinated by the whole world of public speaking and the importance of every child having the ability to stand up and speak confidently, in public, before they leave school – I want to work with this idea and not William Wordsworth, but….. I can’t think of a way of making this work as a thesis/extended essay – have you, with your wonderful approach, any ideas for me? – it is a long shot but worth the ask!!
thanks Olivia, Nicky from Ireland

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Olivia Mitchell February 19, 2011 at 8:52 am

Hi Nicky
I agree that you should do what you’re inspired to do. Writing a thesis can turn into a slog even when you’re excited by the subject, and if you’re not inspired by the subject it can become a huge burden.

Could you find a group of children to work with and coach them in giving a speech and measure the impact on their confidence – in public speaking and other areas of their lives. Then your thesis can be on an analysis of the results.
All the best with your study
Olivia

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julia July 12, 2012 at 8:33 am

I am one who has terrible stage fright because of a 2nd grade talent show.. I can’t finfd much to help get rid of it. In class I gave a presentation and I passed out from being scared. Any suggestions?

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zoie August 19, 2012 at 1:49 pm

i have a really bad case of stage fright i start to shake and my face turns red and i foreget what im suposed to say and i just kinda freak out i take a deep breath but it dosent work what can i do

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Srecko August 25, 2012 at 8:40 am

Hi Olivia,

I have a question about stage fright. I pretty much can control all the aspects of it (blur thoughts, sweating etc), I simply push myself to overcome those things. But my voice is giving up by shaking. Any tips on that? And is your ebook out yet? I would love to fix this fear.

Thanks

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Olivia Mitchell August 27, 2012 at 10:11 am

Hi Srecko
My experience is that a shaky voice can only be reduced by addressing the cause of your nervousness. For help with this start with this post http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/nervousness/no-perfect-presentation/. I have a draft of my ebook on fear of public speaking. If you would like to receive it, let me know and I will send it to you.

Olivia

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Andrew Treantos October 26, 2012 at 1:58 am

Hi Olivia,
Thanks for your post on overcoming stage fright. Like many of your readers, I am in the process of battling this imaginary foe. Please send me the draft of your eBook. I would love to read it.

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Chelsea April 16, 2013 at 10:12 pm

I hope it works coz tomorrow i have to do a science presentaition:(
But I’m rich so $ woohoo

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A&F September 11, 2013 at 10:05 pm

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Rakesh Parmar September 28, 2013 at 11:29 pm

Before presentation think positive, you can think I can do it ,I can do it properly,don’t think negative, positive mind set makes your presentation perfect.

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