How to keep stage fright from stealing your spotlight
Facing your fears when it comes to public speaking may give you a leg up in the world
It's a feeling we know only too well. Someone asks you to speak to a room full of people, make a presentation or, worse still, go up on stage under bright lights. Immediately, your chest starts to tighten. You feel a shortness of breath. Your palms go clammy. There are butterflies in your stomach and, for many, there is a sense of anxiety that disables our ability to think and speak normally. Sometimes, this passes in a few seconds; for others, it lasts much longer. This is stage fright. Like many other kinds of anxiety, it appears in degrees and can seem overwhelming and insurmountable.
As a drama educator and public speaker, the question I get asked most often is: "How do I help my child build confidence and overcome stage fright?" It's important to understand that stage fright can be conquered.
One look around the modern-day workplace makes it evident that it's so important to know how to communicate with a group of people, to be able to tell your story when in the spotlight, and to be able to express your ideas in words. In many cases, it is the single ladder against the wall of corporate hierarchy. And yet, we do not train this skill nearly as much as we should.
So, what can we do as parents and leaders to help that wonderfully creative person we know express themselves fearlessly? I suggest three exercises.
1. Saying the first line: I often do this when I get nervous about going on stage in front of an unfamiliar audience. I say the first line of my dialogue or speech over and over again backstage, out loud. Once the first few words escape our lips with a kind of muscle memory, the others simply flow. A few sentences later, the anxiety starts to die down and we are able to think, be present and be our full selves on stage.
2. Take baby steps toward the stage: If being under the lights and in front of an audience of 500 people seems like a daunting task, start smaller. Begin with an assignment that requires you to speak in front of five people, then 10, then 20. If speaking in front of another person seems too much, try the mirror, then a phone camera. Start with a 30-second speech, and move upward to five minutes by the end of a month. Make no mistake: moving slowly still means you are moving ahead.
3. Refine the art of the personal story: This is the most impactful part of a speech in my experience. If you are able to tell an audience why you care about a subject, they understand better why they need to care. In the telling of a personal story on stage, we are able to tap into a kind of honesty and vulnerability that immediately brings us to a very present and authentic state. Once you have achieved that, the distance between you and the audience is bridged, and your job is done.
While these tips and exercises may not transform the average person into an orator overnight, it helps one move in the right direction. Being on stage, just like swimming or cycling or learning how to walk, is a process. A lesson that needs a float, some training wheels and a cheering person on the other end of the finish line.