No one has ever really nailed down the nature of stage fright. It can affect both beginners and veterans. It can put you a little on edge or it can debilitate you. In most cases, it can be handled. In some, it’s not so easy.
The term “stage fright” is said to have originated with Mark Twain, but examples of it go clear back to Moses, who needed his brother, Aaron, to speak for him. Even experienced performers including Lawrence Olivier, Olympia Dukakis, Mariah Carey and Adele have been troubled by it.
So what are we all so afraid of?
There are anthropologists who have suggested a theory. They think it may be about the eyes—all those eyes looking at us at the same time. Down through human history, the theory goes, everyone looking at you at the same time generally has not been good news. It meant you were about to be hunted/eaten/accused/judged/sentenced. Stage fright prepares you to survive the threat your psyche tells you you’re facing, even though the audience is harmlessly sitting there. All we can see is the judgment we seem ready to undergo, and that can bring some speakers to their knees.
Most of us know the symptoms—the racing heart, the clammy hands, the dry mouth, the nausea . . . and the wish we were anywhere else but here. I don’t really believe people would choose death over public speaking, as so many surveys report, but I do believe stage fright can be a deal breaker.
To combat it, I can offer two tactics and one strategy.
Tactic one is to get all that excess adrenaline out of your system. It’s the adrenaline that’s making your hands shake and your voice quaver. Work it off. Go someplace no one can see you and run in place, do pushups off the basin, shadowbox. At least flex your muscles. You’ll find your hands and voice are steady again, which may help your confidence when you get up to speak.
Tactic two is not to scan the audience when you’re up there facing them. Every time you look at a new face you’ll evaluate how that person feels about you. That will fuel your anxiety. So pick out one, friendly face and talk to that person for awhile, just as though you were the only two in the room. When you’ve reached your point, stop and find someone else. Talk to that person for awhile. Keep doing this. You’re more likely to calm down if you do.
The strategy part is simple, but it may take awhile for you to perfect it. The idea is to look at the audience and think, “What do those people need from me? How can I help them?” When you stop worrying about what they think of you and begin worrying about your message, you’re thinking like a speaker. And that’s the best way to calm your nerves.