Advice on how to deal with stage fright ranges from absurd (don’t picture the audience naked unless you’re speaking at a super-model convention—and that could be distracting) to just plain useless. The popular assumption is that people are naturally fearful of public speaking. The reality is that they’re fearful, not of public speaking, but of public embarrassment.
Will I freeze?
Will I forget part of my speech?
Will I fail to engage the audience?
Will I reveal my ignorance?
Will I unintentionally offend someone?
Will an intimidating expert or critic be in the audience?
Will my zipper be open?
“What if?” scenarios are generated by your imagination. They multiply fast and eclipse all reason. Given the number of things that can (and have) gone wrong on-stage, it’s a wonder anyone can summon up the courage to speak in public. Stage fright is natural and normal.
The key to overcoming nerves is preparation—the right kind of preparation.
Don’t Memorize Your Speech
If you’re a member of the memorizer camp—and many capable speakers are—go beyond memorization to interpretation. A five-minute speech can easily require a hundred hours of practice to fully memorize, and unless you are beyond confident that you know the material, your biggest worry on the platform will be: Will I remember all my lines? Fear of forgetting is, ironically, the greatest cause of memory lapse.
Present the same speech a half-dozen times to different audiences, and you’ll find that it quickly becomes familiar, comfortable, and consistent. Memorization becomes not an exercise, but a natural consequence of owning your topic and message. Memorizing a one-off speech on a deadline is a surefire way to burn time, create stress, and increase your risk of failing.
Memorize the Structure of Your Presentation
The purpose of a speech is to transform an audience. How do you want them to think, act, or feel different after your presentation? When you craft your speech, work backward from the transformation, and understand how every story, fact, or joke contributes to your point. Anyone can ramble more or less coherently about a topic (and many do), but a well-outlined speech usually has fewer than ten sections: Beginning. Supporting points. Conclusion. Some speakers build presentations of varying lengths out of specific stories and sections—like putting beads on a string. The opening and conclusion may be the same, but the short TEDx talk may use three “beads” between them while the fifty-minute keynote might use seven. These sections can easily be represented by a word or two, or even a picture, and kept on a notecard for reference as-needed. Add needed customizations for the audience and if you know your own stories, you can focus on memorizing those custom elements.
You can use slides as a “secret outline,” but come prepared for malfunctions and glitches.
Memorizing or annotating a speech outline is a much less daunting task than memorizing a speech word-for-word. Reduce stage-fright by memorizing only what you need to, if anything at all. Craft a speech that has a logical flow from beginning to end, and enjoy the confidence that comes from being that rare speaker who “knows what they’re talking about.” Stage fright diminishes when you know what you’re going to say.
Build a Bridge
The hallmarks of a great speech are a strong beginning and a strong ending. Some speakers joke that if you pull those off successfully, you can read the phone book in-between. This is exaggeration, of course—all your content should offer value—but think of a speech as a suspension bridge where spans of roadway are hung between a series of towers rising from the ocean of oratory. These towers represent peaks and valleys in the emotional contour of your speech.
Gag lines, vulnerable moments, big wins: These are your “towers”—points in your speech where you get to use a long pause, hang your head in shame, surprise the audience with a joke, make a happy face that fades to a disappointed one, scream at the universe, or act out one side of a phone dialogue. Build these “routines” into your speech and rehearse them in front of an audience (you never get too good for Toastmasters).
These “towers” complement the “beads” of logical content flow that you string on the “necklace” of your presentation. Craft each “bead” so that it includes some element of theater that engages the audience.
A nervous fashion model was nervous about her upcoming TEDx talk. She described a line of swimwear she’d once been asked to model. Apparently, you weren’t supposed to get them wet; you couldn’t actually swim in them!
“Can you wash them?” I asked, only half in jest.
She thought for a moment. “That’s funny! I can use that.”
The agency asked me to model a line of swimwear, “…but you can’t swim in them,” they said. “They’re strictly fashion.”
Pause and make a cynical face.
Extend thumb and forefinger at arm’s length, facing downward, as if holding something unpleasant.
Can you wash them?
Release thumb and forefinger as if dropping the item in the trash.
Pause and then resume the story after the audience finishes laughing.
“Routines” like this are the towers in your “bridge.” Once you get them down pat, instead of dreading your speech, you’ll find yourself looking forward to “dropping these emotional bombs” on the audience. If you know you’re going to get the laughs, the gasps, or the tears, anxiety turns to enthusiasm.
Turn Nervous into Service
Most speakers, even advanced ones, experience some degree of stage fright before a presentation. Sometimes, I’m surprised by a rush of anxiety immediately after one. Nerves don’t have to be debilitating. With the right preparation, you can harness the power of your nervousness and reflect it back to the audience.
Whether you’re standing in the open doorway of an airplane or waiting to walk onto the platform in front of an audience, nerves are normal. A study published in 2015 found that both first-time and experienced skydivers experienced the same increases in pre-jump levels of cortisol (stress hormone) and anxiety, but experienced skydivers were better able to moderate their nerves. If the initial anxiety level is the same, it makes sense that experienced skydivers (and speakers) offset their fear by anticipating the thrill of the upcoming jump. For first-timers, the experience is pure anxiety. From then on, they know it’s going to be exciting and that the fear is worth facing.
As Franklin Delano Roosevelt so famously said, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” Accept your stage fright as a natural consequence of choosing to speak. Be gentle with yourself; you are wherever you happen to be on your speaking journey. There is no shame in inexperience unless you let that prevent you from becoming more experienced. Prepare, but don’t overprepare. Craft high points and low points in your talk—towers on your narrative bridge—that are sure to engage the audience. Use notes or slides if you need to. Your dependency on them will diminish with practice, but when it’s time to step onto the platform, do so with whatever support you need to deliver the most value to your audience.
And even Winston S. Churchill said “Never trust your memory without your manuscript.” Memory lapses and content scrambles are not a crime. Sooner or later you’ll screw up—and that’s okay. Be vulnerable and authentic, excuse yourself with a smile, consult your notes, and then pick up where you left off. Your audience will judge you not by your speedbumps but by whether or not you trip over them.
Turn nervous into service.