Archive for the ‘stage fright’ Category

Think about the times you have been in an audience and the speaker was struggling with nervousness.

What went through your mind?  Were you annoyed?  Critical?  Judgmental?

I suspect you were sympathetic.  You wanted them to be okay.  You wished there was some way you could reassure them.

You may think you are alone in having such thoughts.  You’re not.  This is how most people react.

Remember this the next time you are the nervous speaker.  If you mistakenly think everyone is annoyed, you will become even more anxious.  But, if you remind yourself that most of the people in your audience are reacting the same way you would if your roles were reversed (i.e., sympathetically) it will help you calm down.

Take comfort in knowing they want you to be okay.  They want you to feel confident.

I have had this experience countless times.

I finish delivering a successful talk and I want to give another one right away.  Instead of being glad it’s over, I want to re-experience that wonderful feeling of connecting with an audience.  The smiles, laughs, nodding heads and applause have filled me with confidence and enthusiasm.  Any anxiety I may have felt before the talk is a distant memory.

Unfortunately, opportunities to give an immediate second performance are rare.

So, years ago, I started the practice of visualizing the sights and sounds of success before I deliver a talk.  I take a page from the world of sports and make a point of “seeing” myself doing well before I go to the front of the room.  This mental exercise has the affect of bringing forward some of that extra confidence and enthusiasm I otherwise wouldn’t experience until the end. 

Try it with your next speech or presentation.  If you find it hard at first, mentally reach back to a speaking success you had in the past.  Relive it and re-capture some of that good feeling it gave you.  Then, visualize a similar experience with the audience you are about to face.  The confidence that comes with success will be with you when you need it most—at the beginning.

Normally you’re a confident speaker.  Then you find yourself in front of a room full of fellow experts and everything changes. 

Your hands are shaky.  You’re short of breath.  What’s going on?!?  Instead of feeling more comfortable because of what you have in common, you feel more exposed and vulnerable. 

When speaking to fellow experts you realize just how much you normally count on being the expert in the room.  It’s a bit unnerving when you don’t have that advantage.

One thing that has helped me in these situations is to focus on the specific, new information I have to offer in my presentation.

I can’t base my confidence on superior general knowledge.  That’s obvious.  However, in most cases, I’ve been asked to present because I do have specific information that the others don’t have.  This information could be anything from newly-generated data, to the results of a team project I participated in.

If I think in terms of contributing to my audience’s expertise instead of competing with it, I can reclaim my confidence.

I was searching through Don Greene’s book Fight Your Fear and Win, looking for a particular reference I wanted to use in today’s post.  I ended up on a completely different line of thought after re-reading Greene’s thoughts on perfection and how the pursuit of it gets in the way of long-term success.

He makes the point that success is not one great performance, but a “string of great performances.”  It’s about being able to do your best over and over again—on command.   This is a “tough” endeavor that becomes, in Greene’s words, “downright impossible” if you set perfection as your only acceptable standard.

This made me think of the many people I have had in presentation skills workshops who have admitted to being both perfectionists and committed avoiders of public speaking situations.  They will only do a presentation if forced to.  And, each less-than-perfect performance strengthens their resolve to avoid future presentations whenever possible.

As Greene says, consistent perfection is not possible.  If you insist on making it your goal, discouragement and avoidance will follow.  Allow yourself to be less than perfect and you can stay on the road toward something not too distant from perfection.

Even after thirty years of public speaking I occasionally get nervous.  It doesn’t happen often, but when it does my mouth gets dry.   

The obvious solution is to pause occasionally for a sip of water.  I would do that except that the same nervousness that is robbing me of moisture is causing my hands to shake a bit.  Lifting a glass of water and trying to drink is not a good idea.  Even if I don’t spill the water, everyone will see the shakiness and know that I am nervous.  I prefer not to advertise the fact.

I could bite the tip of my tongue.  That would produce saliva—along with some pain.

Or, I could do like beauty pageant contestants and smear some Vaseline on my teeth, but that helps with smiling more than it does with speaking.

The solution I prefer is a variation on a desert survival technique.

If you are fighting dryness while in the desert, wedging a pebble up in your cheek will produce saliva.  In a public speaking situation a small mint, like the kind you can buy at Starbucks, will generate the same results.  Put it up in your cheek and just leave it there.  You’ll get the moisture you need without shaky drinks of water.

A forum I was reading included someone searching for a coach that could help with public speaking.

One of the responses disparaged the use of a coach saying that nothing would be learned that couldn’t be found in a book.  This individual went on to give his own advice for “getting comfortable in front of an audience.”  He was doing something very common: equating comfort with improvement as a speaker.

Being comfortable is not the same as being good.

I know great speakers who have never gotten over being nervous.  I know poor speakers who are “perfectly comfortable” in front of people.

Being comfortable is good.  It’s preferable to being nervous.  But it doesn’t prove good speaking skills.

Are you one of those speakers who only calms down fully when audience members start asking questions?

When all the attention is on you, and yours is the only voice in the room, your anxiety level is high.  When the questions start, and the situation becomes more conversational, your shoulders relax and your blood pressure goes down.

If this sounds familiar, avoid the standard questions-at–the-end presentation format whenever you can.  You need audience participation as early as possible.

Ideally, if the audience size is manageable, begin your talk by asking one or two questions of the audience and inviting a couple of comments.  This will enable you to start calming down immediately.

If, during your presentation, your nerves start to creep back up, engage the audience again. 

Follow this technique of engaging the audience whenever you need the calming effect and you will reap a bonus benefit.  You will get a reputation for being a highly interactive presenter.  No one ever needs to know that all that audience interaction is really nerve management.

How does your nervousness show when you are speaking in public?

The list of possible symptoms is long.  Two of the most common are hand wringing and unsettled feet.  A nervous speaker will continuously work his or her hands in a dry version of hand washing or do a small, non-stop dance.  Some speakers do both.

If you tend toward either of these nervous symptoms, take heart.  There is a simple solution.

If there is a lectern or table that you can touch with the fingertips of one hand, you will experience immediate relief from the nervous hands or dancing feet.  It’s as if we are electrical in nature and need to be grounded. 

If you are speaking in front of a conference table, and no one is sitting in the first seat to your right, you can drift over to it as you show your slides and lightly rest your hand on the back of it.

Occasionally, when someone is charged with speaking out in the middle of large stage you will see a stool or music stand that seems to have no purpose since the speaker neither sits nor refers to notes.  These items provide a grounding post, if needed.

There is a common variation on this grounding technique that involves holding on to something like a pen, microphone or laser pointer.  The effect can be the same, but you have to be careful not to start playing with the object.  That ballpoint pen you are holding may settle you down, but unconsciously clicking it will become a distraction to everybody in the room. 

The next time you start wringing your hands or shifting your feet nervously, ground your nerves.  A light touch is all it takes.

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