How to Overcome Stage Fright

I used to have horrible stage fright. It probably stems from the fact that I’m inherently a shy person. I overcame my shyness though, and that’s always the first step. Here’s how I did it.

Once I overcame my shyness, I became much better at person to person interactions. Now I have no issue with meeting new people and striking up conversations. But the last great frontier of my shyness battle has always been stage fright. It seems kind of crazy, though – I’ve been performing in front of people for years. I’ve sung in choirs, a capella quartets, and even done the occasional duet or solo thing. I have spoken in front of people many, many times.

For a long time though, I didn’t feel like I was at my best with it. My nerves always got in the way of my performance. I was too concerned about messing up, and if I actually did hit a wrong note or lose my train of thought, I’d beat myself up about it for days. The end result was, I wasn’t really enjoying the act of performing.

One of my goals for this year was to do more public speaking. I knew this would require me, for once and for all, to get over my stage fright. I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to do that, but just recently, I’ve figured it out. Here’s what I know now:

Watch, listen, and learn. The first thing I did on my path to being a better public speaker was watch people who are really great speakers. I spent a lot of time looking at talks given by speakers I admire, like Chris Brogan, Christopher Penn, and Seth Godin. These guys are outstanding storytellers and magnificent public speakers. I watched videos of them over and over again, and once I got the message of their talk, I’d go back and watch again to listen to the way they pieced stories together, how they used slides, how they moved around on stage. I learned a ton. I’m still learning from them all the time. Watch people you admire. Learn what makes them successful. Then don’t copy them – but integrate what you’ve learned from them, and create your own style.

Think it out. Whether it’s a musical performance or a speaking engagement, it’s really important to put some thought into things before you hop on stage. I’ve been to a few incredible musical performances lately, from immensely talented guys who know how to weave music and story into everything they do (even when their songs don’t have lyrics!). Just check out guys like Corin Raymond and Sean Cotton, David Ross Macdonald, and Jonathan Byrd when you get a chance. These guys ooze talent – and they are masterful storytellers. It takes a tremendous amount of thought, time, and effort to be an effective storyteller. You’ve got to spend time, head down, and figure out how you’re going to convey your story to your audience in compelling way. You’ve got to figure out the essence of what you are trying to say. But once you know it in your heart, the words (or the melodies) will just flow, and it’s unlikely stage fright will enter the equation at that point.

Practice practice practice. I was invited to speak at the first ever Ignite Ottawa this past Thursday night (you can read about what I talked about here). For those of you who are not familiar with the format, each speaker gets 5 minutes and 20 slides to share a message. The catch is, each slide auto-advances every 15 seconds. And I tell you – it takes a LOT of practice to get that part right. I spent the better part of a week, in all my spare moments, practicing my talk. It was to the point where as soon as I’d launch into it, the dog would just sigh and leave the room. By far the best way to combat stage fright is to practice. And practice. And then practice some more. BUT…..don’t practice too much. Learn your cut off point – because if you overdo it, it will sound too rehearsed. If you are striving for perfection, you won’t achieve it. So stop that. Practice until you can do it backwards and forwards, and then stop practicing. You’re ready.

Get over yourself. Probably the number one reason people get stage fright is because they are worried about what people will think. This was by far my biggest problem. My story was solid. I’d practiced my brains out. But I would get up on stage, and look at all those people, looking at me, waiting for me to do something, and I’d feel a rush of adrenaline to my head. My stomach would tense up, and my breathing would become shallow. I’d open my mouth and…glak. It took every ounce of courage I had to get through it. And after it was over, I’d feel like throwing up. Not really a compelling reason to want to get on stage….ever.

But then I realized something. I was getting myself all worked up, worrying about what people were thinking. I wasn’t focused on the moment. I knew I had the ability to hit the right notes, or remember the next point. But I was too distracted by all those eyes looking at me. Performing well takes focus, and the best way to maintain that focus is to be 100% completely in your performance. Connect with the audience, but don’t try to read their minds. Do what you came to do – entertain, inform, enlighten. The end result will be not only a better show, but you will have actually enjoyed being on stage.

I’ve made a lot of positive strides in the past year with overcoming my stage fright. Now I look forward to being on stage. And hopefully, what I’m doing when I’m up there has improved as well.

So what’s your take on stage fright?

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  • November 16, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    I don’t suffer from stage fright. I am shy one to one with people I don’t know but I can talk to a room of people on a subject I am familiar with easily.

    Here is my theory as to why: When I was in grade five I ran for class president. Candidates needed to prepare a short presentation. I went completely overboard. I created buttons, charts and graphs. I even wrote and recorded a campaign song! Of course the tape recorder jammed on me, and it went downhill from there. I knew I was in trouble when the teacher left the class room. I found out later that he was laughing his ass off and didn’t want me to see it. My fellow students just laughed in my face. I got zero votes, and my reputation as a complete nerd was confirmed for yet another year.

    All of my worst fears about public speaking came true that day. So I learned that next time could never be worse, and to try to keep presentations simple, in context and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse!

    I never ran for class president again, but my book reports crushed it!

  • November 18, 2009 at 8:27 am

    Great points you raise here Sue. They people are more afraid of speaking in public than they are of dying. It is a huge fear. I tis connected with public humiliation as David experienced when he was in grade 5. Too bad he stayed there.

    One of the things I know is that the hormones or chemicals that race through your body at the time of fear are the EXACT same composition as those for excitement. If you can change the thought for fear to excited when you want to vomit it somehow subdues things a bit.

    The other in regards to get over yourself..if you stay in tune with what you are there to do in service of your audience rather than indulge in yourself there is an energy flow that goes through you to the audience and back. It is a tangible energy. You can see it int their eyes and you as a speaker will be lost in time it will flow so smoothly.

    Would have like to see your ignite presentation. Sounds rigorous. Great that you have a clear goal to conquer the fear and excel at presenting.



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