November 28, 2022

Stage Fright: Understanding Your Anxiety Can Help You Manage It

Public Speaking Fear , Presentation Tips , Public Speaking

"A certain degree of anxiety can help people anticipate obstacles, remain cautious, and stay organized."

– Dr. Shahram Heshmat, in an article for Psychology Today

For most people, public speaking is associated with feeling nervous, though the degree varies greatly from person to person.

When we coach speakers, we don't promise to eliminate nerves or provide "tricks" to avoid them. Instead, we like to help each person find their way to coping. So we thought this article in Psychology Today, "6 Sources of Stage Fright," might give you a useful way to think about yourself, what triggers nerves for you, and how you can put that nervous energy to productive use.

Afraid of what we'll lose

If knowing the source, as the article says, is your first step toward conquering fear, you might want to consider what it is you fear losing—since several of the six sources are connected to our fears of loss.

Maybe you're afraid you'll lose the respect of coworkers, a boss, or client. Perhaps you fear losing the love of those who matter most to you. These fears, Dr. Sharhram Heshmat says, could be connected to other traumatic experiences in our lives, such as overly demanding parents or rejection we recall from our childhood years.

While we Buckley coaches aren't psychologists, we have seen that when speakers identify these concerns and talk them through, they can get a better handle on what's truly at stake.

Chances are the most important people in your life will still love you, even if you botch the presentation. We also remind speakers—most audiences are cheering for you. Out of self-interest if nothing else, they want to see you succeed.

The panic of feeling unprepared

Dr. Heshmat writes that the ego wants to protect us from disaster. Nervous speakers will often procrastinate in their preparations, despite the fact that being prepared is a great way to allay some of that performance panic. Why is that?

Dr. Heshmat says it's a form of avoidance, "a temporarily effective way of escaping an unpleasant situation." The next time you're struggling to get started with your prep for a presentation, consider if his observation might apply to you: "Some performers procrastinate … and then say there was not enough time to get ready."

Some techniques we've seen that can help:

  • Set deadlines and ask a co-worker or public speaking coach to keep you accountable with scheduled collaborations or practice sessions.

  • Set a timer for a short amount of time—five minutes, for example—and work until the alarm sounds. Once you get started, you may find it's easier to keep going.

  • Lower the bar for yourself by making your goal to produce "a terrible first draft" instead of a perfect product.

Trying something new with everyone watching

If you've ever been challenged to speak to a larger than usual audience or incorporate new technology into a presentation, you may be able to relate to this source of anxiety. And certainly, some of us are more comfortable with taking on new challenges than others.

You can reduce your anxiety through preparation. For example:

  • Visit the venue and stand on the stage. See what it will feel like before the room fills with people.

  • Get hands-on practice with all the technology, several times, until you're comfortable using it.

  • Ask for a dress rehearsal.

  • Deliver a test run on a smaller audience, where the stakes are low, and build your confidence.

The magic of working for your audience

In our experience, there is no instant cure for stage fright though deep breathing, changing your mindset, or power posing does seem to help.

If there were a silver bullet, it might be that thing we call at The Buckley School "becoming the servant of your message."

Our founder championed this approach with our faculty and students. It's the premise that you don't matter, because you're true concern is getting your message across. When you are dedicated to that goal, you'll stop fretting about yourself and start thinking about what will work for the audience. 

Or as Dr. Heshmat puts it: "Optimal performance requires a shift in mindset – less focused on yourself and more focused on your true purpose."

Learn more

Read more about the "6 Sources of Stage Fright" here.

Check out our popular how-to guide for projecting confidence (even when you’re not feeling it). 

Things can go wrong, but it doesn't have to ruin your presentation. Reduce your anxiety with our tips for how to keep going with a smile. 

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