Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Conquering Stage Fright

Public speaking isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s an important skill for leaders in the business world to cultivate. Whether you have to deliver a presentation before the members of a corporate board, a group of employees in your organization, a charity, a high school, or the Canadian parliament, you’ll make a stronger impression and communicate your message more powerfully if you are a competent and effective speaker. (For more on this topic, see this post from the Corporation Centre blog archives.)

One of the primary causes of discomfort around public speaking is performance anxiety—otherwise known as stage fright. Like other forms of fear, performance anxiety leads to the release of adrenalin into your bloodstream, and produces two kinds of psychosomatic responses: one is a desire to resist or defy the agent of your intimidation (“fight”); the other is the impulse to flee or escape (“flight”). In the context of public speaking, these responses can manifest themselves in distinctly unhelpful ways: a trembling voice, blushing, loss of memory or an inability to maintain focus (“flight”), and muscle tension or tightness (“fight”). An accelerated heart rate and breathing rate, producing speech that is excessively rapid or high-pitched, is also a common problem for inexperienced or nervous public speakers.

Fortunately, the “fight or flight” response is an ill that you can (partly) alleviate by focusing on the symptoms rather than the cause.

Practice in advance.

Speak in front of a mirror, or deliver a rehearsal to a friend or loved one. Time yourself, and in successive attempts, try to maintain a consistent time.

Commit your words—or at least the gist of the speech—to memory.

It’s fine to have notes in front of you and consult them once in a while. But when a speaker is reading from a sheet of paper for an extended period, many people react by tuning out. Nervous speakers frequently resort to reading without even glancing up at the audience, but that’s rarely an effective way to forge an interpersonal connection.

Stay hydrated. Drink water before and during your remarks.

As a consequence of the “fight or flight” response, many people experience a dry throat, or worse, a frog in their throat that inhibits their ability to speak. Although water can’t eliminate the source of the fear in this situation (unless it arrives in the form of a fire sprinkler that forces everyone in the room to evacuate), it can mitigate dryness in the mouth and throat caused by performance anxiety.

Deep breaths and cadence.

Again, the goal here is to partially counteract the “fight or flight” response. A quick surge of adrenalin in your bloodstream can produce short, shallow breathing and accelerated speech. If you know this tends to happen to you, concentrate on taking deep, deliberate breaths, and enunciate your words carefully.

Clear your mind by minding your heart.

The “fight or flight” response entails the redirection of blood away from your brain and toward your major muscles—enabling you to brace for a physical struggle, or run faster in order to successfully escape. However, neither of these abilities is particularly useful if you need to deliver a speech. As I noted earlier, as your brain loses blood flow, you will tend to forget important details and lose concentration.

You may find that the following brief ritual will help you clear your mind and regain poise.

First, focus your attention on the organ responsible for circulating blood through your system—your heart. Next, breathe in and out, imagining that the air that enters you is a purifying elixir, and that your exhalation is exhaust—a mixture of waste products to be discarded. Finally, go to your happy place—i.e. think of a person, place, or thing that warms your heart and brings you comfort.

For a video tutorial, see this presentation by public speaking coach Dave Smith.


Regular exercise is important for maintaining your health and energy level in general. And if the opportunity of a brief walk presents itself right before you’re due to speak, go for it; even low-intensity exertion can increase blood flow to your brain and improve your focus and composure.