Tips and tricks to deal with stage fright and become a more confident speaker
This is a tough one for me to tackle, as I have never had stage fright. As weird as it may sound, I love standing in front of a crowd. I will never forget once, while addressing a network-marketing group of about 400 people, I had to talk about presentation skills. I started by saying that I have never had stage fright, and continued by saying that you could put me in front of any audience naked, and I would talk about the first thing that comes up. At the time I didn’t realise what I had said.
It had made sense in my mind. To top it all, it was a very religious group as well. Thankfully they all had a sense of humour and burst out laughing. Only then did I realise what I had said, and ended up laughing with them. Thinking back, my reaction actually proved my point that I wasn’t nervous, and even when I did say something wrong, I could still laugh at myself. They realised I didn’t mean it the way their ‘imaginative’ minds had processed it, and all was forgiven.
I just had to share that with you. To be honest, I was embarrassed at the time but managed to hide it quite well.
Stage fright is a reality for most speakers I know, and there has been much said about how to overcome it. I will cover various tips and theories, but I believe there are only three reasons why someone is nervous before a presentation.
1) They are not really into what they are doing, i.e. only doing it for the money and it is not their real passion - hence the feeling of, ‘Will I pull it off?’
2) They are not the experts they profess to be, and fear that someone could possibly see through them.
3) The main reason to me - they don’t know their talk! If I go on stage and have no knowledge of what I am going to say, then I will be uneasy and stressed. That’s only normal. But if I know my talk (we come back to the issue of being ‘real’ and doing it 100 times for free), why should I have any reason to doubt my abilities? If you have practiced and rehearsed that talk and can do it in your sleep, you have absolutely no reason to be nervous. That’s it.
Yes I can read minds too ... you are now thinking to yourself, “But what about those 100 times I do it for free, there will be the first time I do it - so obviously I will be nervous.” Yes I agree, so why then don’t you start small? Do it for your family, friends and social circle first. Do it for people you are comfortable with. Then build up to the Rotary and Lion club meetings etc. Ease yourself into it!
I will never forget my first Magical Production show we performed on Princess cruises. We had a choreographer from Broadway rehearsing with us every night. When it came to the final bows she would swear like a trouper and scream at us (that’s my wife and me - my wife assisted in the show.) Let me backtrack. I have always been a thankful person and believe that part of my success is that I am grateful and thankful for everything that has happened in my life. I don’t take anything for granted and believe in humility. I don’t see myself as better than the next person. My wife has the same views.
Thus, when we bowed at the end of our show, in my eyes it was a gracious bow of gratitude and thanks towards the audience for spending the hour with us.
To the choreographer this was a no no! She was American! Have you ever watched an American entertainer on stage? They are in charge - they take over - they have ATTITUDE!
That is why they are the best and the biggest. Her philosophy was, ‘It’s all good and well to be humble, but when you are on stage, YOU are the star. YOU are in control. Your whole body must ooze confidence.’ I am giving you the polite version here. She said, “When you bow, you look the audience in the eyes and say, “Up Yours!” Of course you do this silently to yourself. Guess what happened? My chest suddenly pushed out and I stood more proud - now she started applauding.
As crude as this example may sound - she was right. YOU are on that stage. The audience is there to listen to you. If you do not ooze confidence and pride, you will never become great. Look at your top American speakers and entertainers. They have ATTITUDE! Confidence and POSITIVE Attitude sells. Whether you agree with this philosophy or not, it works. That’s why they are the biggest and the best.
However, that doesn’t mean you must become an arrogant prat!
Keep your humility and remain a gracious human being. But when you stand on that stage, you need to radiate power and control. The audience must see a confident, high-energy individual who is great at what they do. How else can you inspire others if they don’t see that energy and passion in you? It’s all about the show!
I trust this makes sense.
Further tips to increase your confidence:
1) When you practice your talk, take it on video and watch yourself. Initially you may not enjoy seeing yourself on tape. But the more you do it, the more you become used to seeing yourself and you soon learn to look at yourself critically and see where you have gone wrong. You become comfortable with seeing yourself and this does make you more secure within yourself.
2) Don’t just rehearse your talk to camera, in front of friends, or alone in your living room, but visualise it during quiet times as well. If you are sitting waiting on someone, or just before you go to sleep - see yourself on that stage and imagine doing the talk. This all boosts your confidence. Someone once told me that when they rehearse in their living room, they put all their children’s stuffed animals on the couch and use them as an audience. Hey, if it works for you - great!
3) Many people suggest you should find a quiet room before the presentation and relax/meditate. If that helps you, great! In my mind it just gives you more time to get nervous. I would suggest rather keeping busy, talking to others and holding a conversation with someone. You MUST have done your talk 100 times by now. You know it. There is no reason to be nervous and brood. You should be telling jokes to the stage assistant and laughing, while waiting for your cue to go onto stage.
4) Many people say that you have to get through the first 5 minutes. Granted, if you haven’t done a dry run and are not used to the stage and lighting, it can be intimidating standing there in a strange environment with lights blinding you. Look at a 5 minute goal of just settling in - don’t worry about the whole hour keynote. Just get into that ‘comfort zone’ first, and the rest will follow naturally.
5) Breathe normally. When people clamp up they start breathing fast with shorter breaths - hence the nerves. A nice idea is to get onto stage, look at the audience and take a few deep breaths before starting to speak. One of funniest openings I ever saw a speaker do was that he walked onto stage with a cup of coffee. Sat down, lit a cigarette and basically spent two minutes smoking and drinking coffee. He was looking at the audience, but was in a ‘zone’ of his own. Then suddenly he said,” What’s the matter - do you start working straight away when you get into the office?”
The audience cracked up. They could relate to what he did, plus he had given himself the time to get used to the stage, calm himself and start with a laugh.
6) That brings me to making the audience laugh right away. Laughter breaks the ice for anyone. If you can walk onto stage and get a laugh in the first 10 seconds - it will calm you and the audience. Read my chapter on opening lines and ideas for more on this.
7) Realise that 99% of the people in the audience would be scared sh&#tless to stand on that stage - so they are all glad it’s you and not them. Thus they are on your side.
8) Consider for a moment if anyone in the audience has your knowledge and can stand up on that stage and do what you are doing. Odds are they can’t! That’s another reason to be more confident.
9) Most people are scared of ‘dying or bombing’ on stage. You know that fear is what holds people back. Are you going to let fear make you nervous? If you know your talk, you have nothing to fear!
10) Some people suggest that you talk to the audience as if they were only one person. Okay, but every time you look up, there are hundreds in front of you. Here is where eye contact is important. I would change this advice to, ‘Talk to one person at a time.’ It is imperative to maintain eye contact with everyone in the room and make them feel as if you are personally speaking to each and every individual. Thus you do look and speak to one person at a time, but you move around. Spend a few seconds looking at one, and then move to the next. In essence you are still only having a one to one conversation, but covering the whole room.
11) Understand that it’s not about you! It’s about them! When you make your audience more important than you and focus on the message/story that you are telling, your focus changes away from yourself and you calm down.
12) As a speaker, have you ever spoken on the topic of ‘Letting Go?’ I believe many of us have. You now have to apply the concept to yourself. Let go of the worry that some people may not like you. That’s life! Not everyone is going to like you and get on with you. This is a personal issue each and every one of us has to come to terms with. You need to learn to be comfortable with who you are. We live in a society where we are so conditioned by the media on who we should be, that this actually screws up the majority of people. Stop being image conscious. Stop doing what the media sells you. Be true to yourself and inner peace will follow.
Think about it; how many people do you know who just seem to be chilled and happy with whom they are? Not many! When you talk to them and spend time in their company, how does it make you feel? Comfortable? It’s their natural energy that rubs off onto you. My dad always said to me, “You can’t get everyone to love you, but you can get them to respect you.” Isn’t that what it’s all about?
There is an old saying about only needing 51% of people to like you in order to be successful.
Get over all the personal image issues and be yourself. If you stand on that stage and create an illusion of someone that you’re not - many people may like you. But it will be stressful to maintain that image. However, if you are you, and content with everything about yourself, more people will like you. As someone so nicely put it, “Don’t take yourself so seriously!”
13) I’m scared of making a mistake! Duh! We all make mistakes. If you don’t make mistakes, how else will you improve your talk and become a seasoned veteran in the game? Again, society has conditioned us to see mistakes as negative. Please never fail at anything - then you are not a loser! What kind of philosophy is that? You know where it started - in school with it’s flawed education system. If you failed you were a drop out. My favourite saying is from Thomas Edison who said, “I have not failed, I just found ten thousand ways that don’t work.”
Isn’t that just the best? That’s the philosophy you need. Take it a step further; we as humans were designed to learn from our failures and mistakes. If not, why would we keep on standing up again after we fell down as babies when we tried to walk? But once again the media/society/etc. has conditioned this warped perception in our minds that failure is bad.
Granted, making the same mistake twice is just plain stupid. You have to be honest enough with yourself to learn from your first mistake and change. I look at my speaking career. When I started I made horrible mistakes. Anyone that saw me then and now would never recognise my presentation. Why? Because I was finding my feet. We all have ideas we think will work. When they don’t we want to fall apart. Nonsense, sit back and analyse why it didn’t work. Change it and try again. If it still doesn’t work, do it differently again.
The easiest way to explain this is the way a seasoned comedian works. He may tell a joke which has you rolling in the aisle. You repeat the joke and no one laughs. Why? The comedian has mastered that joke over years and years. He knows how to stand, when to pause, which words to emphasise. Do you think he did that the first time he told the joke? Definitely not - it came with years of practice. That’s why the 100 times rehearsal of your talk is so important. You will learn so much and change so many things. At least you will start the first paying gig with a good talk. The greatness only comes from years of presenting it further and mastering the little things.
I look at my first talk I did, ‘Discover Your Magic.’ To date this is still my favourite talk. Why? Because I have done it for so long I know exactly where to pause and what reaction I will get. And guess what, in 5 years from now there will be many changes to the current version, because I will always learn something every time I do it. So make mistakes and learn from them.
14) Exercise! Fit people are calmer than unfit ones. Have a good workout on the day of your talk - it gets rid of all that excess negative energy and just makes you feel better.
15) Plan for the inevitable. I am a firm believer that if something goes wrong and you have the right funny comment at that moment, everyone relaxes. However, you need to memorise and have them at hand. Even the corniest lines are funny if timed correctly.
Recently I was speaking at a large conference when the power failed. Everything went into darkness. Any decent conference venue will have a back-up generator that will kick in within a few minutes. Of course the microphone was also dead, so I projected my voice as best I could and asked the audience to remain calm and put their hands straight up above their head into the air. I repeated myself saying I could see not everyone was doing this. They laughed as no one could see a thing, including me. When the light came on, 80% of the audience was sitting there with their hands high above them.
I dryly looked at them and said, “See, that old Chinese proverb, many hands make light work, really works!” Besides laughing loudly, I received a thunderous round of applause. In fact afterwards many people spoke to me and thought I had planned the whole thing. The management of the hotel thanked me for covering the blackout so well and shifting the focus onto me. In fact they gave me an expensive bottle of wine as a ‘Thank You.’ All because I had this silly line at exactly the right moment.
A speaker was trying to bring across the message of breaking yourself lose from the shackles that hold you back. He had himself tied up and attempted to try an escape to bring across the message. As he successfully broke free, he shouted, “I’m free, I’m free.” And a little girl in the front row shouted back, “So what, I’m four!”
This is an extract from my book: Tips for Speakers, available at www.mindpowerpublications.com