The first thing that needs to be understood about stage fright is that either you have it, or you don’t. If you don’t have it, good for you, enjoy your life. But if you do happen to have stage fright, you will more than likely have to put up with it for the rest of your life. I’m not saying that to be discouraging, I’m just trying to be honest about my own personal experiences of dealing with stage fright. There is good news, however, in that even if you can’t completely exorcise the irrational phobia from your consciousness, there are ways to manage it; ways to make your anxiety undetectable to lay observers.
Before I get into all the details let me give a little bit of background about my own issues with stage fright. I have always had stage fright. As a kid in grade school, I hated being called on in class, I hated having to take part in school plays/performances, I hated everything and anything that had me standing (or sitting) in front of a group of people, focusing on my words/actions. Whenever I found myself in such a situation the first thing that would happen is my heart rate speeding up, next I would feel the blood pump into the back of my head (which was deafening to my ears), my knees would feel both light and heavy at the same time, my mouth would go dry, my voice would give out, and my face would turn as red as a tomato. This went on for a long, long time. I never “grew out of it,” as people kept telling me I would. Even today, as someone whom most people would identify as a sociable, talkative kind-of-guy, I still feel a silent dread at having to address a group of people. But because I’ve learned how to cope with my stage fright, the uncomfortable experience remains solely a private one.
Let me just say upfront that my ability to manage my stage fright is not the result of counseling or medication. Additionally, I tried meditating as a teen, thinking that relaxation techniques would help me get over my anxiety, and all it ended up doing was making me more anxious (I worried so much about whether I was doing the breathing right that I couldn’t relax for a second; also, it made me dizzy). Self-hypnosis was a complete waste of time. And no, thinking positive thoughts didn’t do much either, on account that (for me at least) worrying thoughts are never voluntary to begin with. What helped me cope with my stage fright in my late teens were the following realizations:
1.) Stage fright can never fully go away. It sounds a bit strange, but it’s probably the most important lesson I had to learn. I was so focused on getting to a point where all of the symptoms I associated with my stupid phobia would simply go away for good, that any effort that yielded a lesser result would come across to me as a failure; leading to more anxiety on my part. Finally, in college I began to concentrate on getting to just a barely adequate presentation level (enough to at least be passably understood by my audience). Gradually, my confidence grew with each presentation, which started easing up the physical signs of my nervousness; i.e. my voice stopped changing pitch, my face stopped blushing (this one was more of a steady improvement over time; first the blushing was just restricted to my cheeks, then it only showed up for the first minute or so of my talk, until it’s now gone completely). Now, don’t misunderstand me, I was (and remain) terrified of speaking in front of people. However, once my goal changed from trying to beat my stage fright, to simply trying to hide it from the audience, my mind started to feel less overwhelmed by the experience, giving me enough time to take a breath and at least mask confidence to the audience. Which eventually developed into real confidence.
2.) Starting with a joke is always a good idea. I know it sounds cliche and overly simplistic, but I find that even the most mundane of humorous comments at the start of the talk will make the experience so much easier when it comes to my stage fright. It doesn’t just put you at ease, but the audience. Not to mention if you do slip up in the middle of your presentation, establishing yourself as a humorous person at the very start makes it so much easier to recover (it makes the audience more forgiving too). I know that some of us aren’t gifted with perfect comedic timing, but you need to remember that no one is expecting you to bring them to tears from laughter; no one is expecting you to be funny at all. A slight quip about the scenery or some local activity (keep it conservative), or even the talk you’re giving itself, will do the job just fine for no other reason than that it is not expected by the audience, which will make them appreciate your effort to make them more comfortable. And will make you more comfortable in return.
3.) People don’t care about you. Well, some people care about you, but your audience doesn’t. At most they care about what you’re about to present, not you as a person. And if you don’t draw attention to yourself, they’ll easily forget about everything in your talk that didn’t concern their preemptive interest. This is a point that I was aware of long before I learned to deal with my stage fright, the problem was that it did me no good because I didn’t actually believe it. In the back of my head (my nervous, blood pulsing head) I firmly held on to the idea that everyone was listening to every word I said, as if their lives dependent on hearing my stupid 5-10 minute oral report. Getting me to actually abandon this bit of irrational thinking took some time and a lot of effort, but it was a needed step in being able to handling my stage fright problem.
There are several more things that go into it, as well as numerous subsequent details that accompany the three above, but I think this covers the essentials as they pertain to my experience. And it needs to be remembered, this is based on my experience. Personalities are different, and people respond differently to different stimuli, so there is always the chance that my methods aren’t good enough for you. However, I think the points I listed are universal enough to at least push most people in the right direction of coping with their stage fright.
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