This is a well known fact, a lot of people suffer from public speaking anxiety. Putting oneself in front of a crowd, and talking to them for several minutes is not only difficult. It is actually considered as worse than death for a lot of people. This is known as glossophobia, the fear of public speaking.
Yeah. Even worse than death. Weird, when you think about it. Jerry Seinfeld, the famous American comedian, once said:
“This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
This is even harder for introverted people, as the very fact of being with a group of people is very draining. Although, as I said in an earlier post, introverts can actually be very good at public speaking.
Performance anxiety is not an issue for beginners only. Long-term professionals, including actors, politicians, musicians, can suffer from stage fright, to the point it is sometimes considered to be part of the job. Sarah Bernhardt, a very famous French actress from the late XIXth Century, used to suffer from performance anxiety. Once, a young actress told her she didn’t experience it anymore. To which Bernhardt answered “don’t worry, stage fright comes with talent”. Maybe this is a legend, but the quote is very famous among artists in France.
So, was Bernhardt right? Are we doomed to suffer from performance anxiety when speaking in public? Is it part of the job? What is stage fright after all, and how can we fight it and feel confident during our speeches, lectures or presentations?
What The Hell Is Stage Fright?
We’re at the beginning of a business meeting. You’re not supposed to talk today. You’ll only assist the meeting. There are like… 10, maybe 15 people today. You don’t know everybody. You took your notepad out, or maybe your laptop, and you’re ready to take notes.
All seems fine and dandy, when all of a sudden, the organizer says:
“Let’s go around the table first, so that each of us can tell his name and tell us why he is there.”
And then, you start to feel your heart pounding. You won’t be the first one to talk, so you try to listen to the others, anxiously anticipating the moment when you’ll have to speak. You try to think about what you’ll tell about you, and, oh no, it’s your turn now.
Your palms are sweating, and when you start to tell your name, your mouth is dry and your voice is shaking…
You might be suffering from public speaking anxiety, aka stage fright.
Didn’t see that coming, did you?
Why does your body react this way?
The Science Behind Public Speaking Anxiety
Actually, public speaking anxiety is a serious matter, and not an easily controllable one. It’s a reaction rooted in the deepest, most archaic parts of our brain.
When we are scared during a public speaking event, it’s because we fear our reputation might be affected.
We fear rejection.
Humans are social beings. We need a group to survive. And that is as old as humankind, perhaps even older. When Mr. Caveman did something very bad in his social group, he was excluded from it. And, that meant death. So, yes, caring about your reputation was literally a life-or-death situation. Hence our visceral reactions when we feel our reputation is threatened. Our anxiety is a behavior that is hardwired in our brains, and that is not something than can be easily overwritten.
And yet, I’m pretty sure you’re conscious your next presentation is not a life-or-death situation. Yes, failing may really suck for you, but you will survive no matter what.
However, stage fright can destroy your confidence and, thus, sabotage your presentation.
So that’s definitely an enemy you want to annihilate. But how can you do that?
3 Ways To Annihilate Public Speaking Anxiety
1. Don’t Take It Personally, It’s Not About You
I have a secret for you: when you speak in public, unless you’re some kind of a rockstar in your domain, the audience doesn’t really care about you.
Yep, sorry. No offense, but it’s not about you.
It’s about your topic.
Yes. If I’m invited to talk about, let’s say, the future or Artificial Intelligence, people in the audience won’t be there because they want to listen to Fabien Delorme. They just want to hear about… Artificial Intelligence.
Sounds obvious, right?
But then, why should I feel anxious if people are not there for me? I won’t be rejected if my presentation is subpar.
In fact, most of the time, the speaker thinks the audience is overly critical of him, and just wants to criticize his message. Far from it. Actually audience members just want you to succeed, because they know you have something important to tell them. Except in some very rare circumstances, they are not judging you at all (unless, maybe, if you’re acting arrogant or something like that).
And, in some cases, even if they actually are judging you, they still want you to succeed. As a College teacher, I’m used to listening to student defending their Master’s degree’s dissertation. This is a rather short presentation, 20 minutes of presentation and 10 minutes of question from the jury members, and then they’re done. This is a stressful event for the students, since it is an exam they might fail, after all.
But we jury members actually don’t really care about how the students present. They are not professional speakers, after all, and we just want them to do the best they can. We don’t really judge them on their presentation skills. We mainly care about the work they did upfront. And that, my friend, is what the deal is about. A student who didn’t work before the presentation will fail. Even if he was very confident. On the other hand, a student who did a great job but makes a poor presentation because of his stage fright will succeed. Because he masters his topic.
That means, the most important thing is your topic. That’s something you have to do upfront: you have to PREPARE.
Let me tell that again.
YOU HAVE TO PREPARE!
The more prepared you are, the better. If your material (the text you’ll say, or at least your outline, and your powerpoint slides, if any) is great, audience members will be like hypnotized and they won’t even remember you’re there. If, on the other hand, your material is subpar, your audience will suffer, and so will you.
But then it’s all your fault.
And the good news is: since preparation is done upfront, without any pressure from the audience, public speaking anxiety won’t be an issue. Your introversion won’t be an obstacle. Quite the opposite, actually, since you’ll be able to focus, concentrate and think, alone, on a very definite task. Very introvert-friendly, if you ask me.
I won’t get into the details of how to prepare a talk in this post. If you want to know more, I have a whole audio course about the preparation phase of any public speaking event.
Just one fast tip, though: if you’re updating your powerpoint slides at the very last minute, you’re setting youreslf up for failure. Don’t laugh, tons of speakers fix their slides or their speech’s text less than 5 minutes before they get onstage. They usually don’t perform really well, and it’s all their fault.
If you feel you need to fix things until the very last moment, you probably didn’t prepare enough upfront. If you’re easily subject to speaking anxiety, you will certainly fail. Do as you wish, but don’t blame your stage fright in these cases. Blame your procrastination tendencies.
Or maybe that’s because you didn’t rehearse enough.
2. Rehearse, Again And Again. And One More Time.
Despite what you may think, human brains are not akin to computers. They can’t do multitasking. It’s hard, if not impossible, to focus on several things at the same time. So, focusing on what you have to say, and on how to behave on stage (body language and all that stuff), and on your inevitable mistakes, is a guaranteed recipe for disaster.
But what’s the problem there? The thing is, once your talk’s content is ready (meaning, once you prepared the text you’ll read or recite word-by-word, or the list of bullet points you’ll talk about, and maybe a powerpoint slideshow) you might think you’re not done.
You’re not. Far from it.
In fact, you’re just starting.
Most of your preparation time should be spent rehearsing.
The great Winston Chruchill had a rule: for every minute of speaking, he practised for one hour. Yeah, the math is easy: a 20 minutes speech had to be be rehearsed for 20 hours before he felt ready. And, of course, that didn’t include the initial speechwriting time.
Maybe that 1 hour for 1 minute ratio is a bit extreme, but I consider it’s reasonable to practice 10 minutes for every minute of your speech or presentation. If you have a 20 minutes presentation to make, don’t you dare think you’re ready until you practiced for more than 3 hours.
OK, we prepared the content, we rehearsed it, not let’s get on stage.
3. Embrace Imperfection
By trying to be perfect, we put a lot of burden onto our shoulders.
Yes, during the preparation phase, you should try to be, maybe not perfect, but as close to it as humanly possible. Because all the mistakes you make during the preparation can be fixed without the audience knowing.
Maybe there was a grammatical mistake in your title, and that mistake was present on all of your slides (gasp), but you fixed it as soon as you saw it. The audience will never know.
Maybe there was a factual error in one of your diagrams. Like a wrong percentage or something. But you did the math one more time, and fixed the issue. The audience will never know.
Maybe at first the organization of your speech was a bit counter-intuitive, making it hard to understand what your actual point was. But you reworked it, and now it’s all clear from the very beginning. And the audience will never know.
But now, what if you make a mistake once you’re on stage? What if you say 5% when you actually meant 7.5%? What if you stumble on a word and loose track of your thoughts? What if you have a coughing spell in the middle of your presentation? What if your laptop crashes in the middle of the presentation? Will the audience know?
Of course they will!
But guess what: there’s nothing you could do about it anyway. You prepared perfectly, but sh*t happens. A coughing spell, a technical problem, any of that can happen to anyone, even a seasoned pro.
The solution is: don’t try to fight it. Learn to embrace it, and to deal with it.
Easier said than done. I know. The easiest fix, in my opinion, is to take an improv class.
Or take the following shortcut.
Dealing with the unexpected is the cornerstone of improv theatre. The most famous improv exercise is the “yes, and…” game.
Two actors are on stage. One of them starts telling a story, the other one has to answer with “yes, and…” and complete the story. Then, the first actor says “yes, and…” and adds another element, and so on and so forth, until the end of the story.
Saying “yes, and…” is important, because if forces the actor to accept what happens, and deal with it. If actor #1 says “I went to my grandma’s house yesterday, and she was watering her garden”, actor #2 cannot say something like “oh, in fact, my grandma has no garden, and anyway, she died 5 years ago”, because it doesn’t make sense. But he can say something like “yes, and when she saw me, she got pretty angry, because I was stepping on her daffodils”. Which kinda sucks if the actor had imagined a story in a post-apocalyptical world because it doesn’t fit his narrative. But, he had to accept what was given to him and deal with it.
It may sound weird, but learning to accept whatever happens and adapt as soon as it happens in the context of an improv class will pay dividends even in tons on real-life situations.
Your powerpoint software crashes in the middle of the presentation? Just yes-and it, just accept the fact it crashed, get rid of your predefined idea of a correctly-working computer, and deal with it.
Yes, it takes practice. Find an improv class. You will thank me.
Stage fright is a cornerstone problem for most people who have to speak in public, whether they are professionals or not, whether they are beginners or seasoned pros.
There is no easy fix, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but by focusing on your preparation, by taking hours and hours to rehearse once preparation is done, and by embracing your mistakes and other problems during the actual event, you will make a great step forward.