5 tips for overcoming stage fright

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.”

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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