Don't be afraid of stage fright; just know how to deal with it

JEFF BEALS


When you see the old films of Elvis Presley performing live on stage, you can't help but notice his energy, his extreme talent and his confidence. A person would have to be awfully confident to perform the way Elvis did, especially considering how edgy he was for that period of time.

Wait a minute. Not so fast. A look at Elvis' life history might surprise you. At times, Elvis suffered from stage fright, that terrible feeling characterized by shallow breaths, accelerated heartbeats, dizziness, sweaty palms and a dry mouth.

Well, if the King of Rock 'n' Roll struggled with stage fright, the rest of us shouldn't feel so bad. Almost everyone deals with that inconvenient form of social anxiety at least sometime during his or her life. I speak professionally, and I still get a tinge of it every once in a while.

Fortunately, stage fright can be managed. Learning how to control it is important, because most professionals have to speak publicly on a periodic basis. In a loud and crowded marketplace, your success may very well depend on your ability to deliver the goods in front of an audience. The better you are as a speaker, the more business and career opportunities you'll enjoy.

Know that stage fright is a very natural part of doing a presentation. Some nervousness is a good thing, because it pushes us to prepare, concentrate and do a good job. When you run the risk of embarrassing yourself in front of a large group of people, you are likely to focus on the task and do your best.

The key to overcoming stage fright is to manage it. Here are a few tips that help me deal with it:

Accept stage fright as a fact of life: The first few times you speak, you will be nervous. As you become more experienced, most nervousness will subside. For your first speech, just stand up and force yourself to do it. Once you start speaking and get a few sentences out, the nervousness usually fades.

Stall for a bit: If your heart is pounding and you are breathing rapidly as you approach the podium, take a few moments before you jump into your script. Straighten your papers, adjust the microphone, thank the person who introduced you and say something nice about him or her. Look out at the audience and smile before you begin talking. This small sequence of events can help you catch your breath and settle into speaking mode.

Don't let the joke be on you: A lot of people will advise you, "Tell a joke at the beginning; it loosens up the crowd and calms the speaker's nerves." That's true as long as the joke is actually funny. A bad joke goes over like a lead balloon. If you are not positive that your joke is funny and that you are capable of delivering it properly, don't do it. Nothing flusters an inexperienced speaker more than a joke that bombs.

They're only human: You may have heard this age-old advice: "Pretend the audience members are all wearing underwear." I can't say that I've ever done this, but I like the spirit and intent of this advice. In other words, audience members are only human. They have as many or more problems and inadequacies as you do. Don't build them into some monolithic gathering of super beings. Most of them would be nervous too if they were in your shoes.

A friendly face: Pretend you are talking to one person you know very well. It could be a spouse, parent, best friend, whoever. This personalizes the audience. For most people, it's much easier to talk to a trusted friend instead of a room full of strangers.

Get a little smug: Remind yourself that the audience is there to see and hear YOU. That means you are doing them a favor. You are providing them with education, entertainment and energy they do not currently have. They are lucky you are willing to take your valuable time to give it to them.

Confident body language regardless of how nervous you may be: When you are introduced as a speaker, stand up and walk confidently toward the podium. Look the introducer in the eye and give him/her a firm handshake. It's hard to explain why, but an outward show of confidence helps you feel more confident on the inside too.

Pauses aren't as long as you think: Don't panic if you lose your place or if you become short of breath during the speech. Simply pause until you find your place. To the speaker, pauses seem 10 times longer than they really are. Actually, pauses are important speaking tools. They break up the monotony and can wake up a drifting audience member.

Dream about the end: With each sentence you utter, you move closer to the end reward — the applause. Remind yourself that your hard work, concentration and endurance of stage fright all pay off when the presentation is done.

Be proactive: The more you prepare, the more confident you are about your material. Secondly, as the old saying goes, practice makes perfect. Practice not only makes your speech better, it makes you more comfortable. The day before a speech, drive to the venue. Simply seeing the place and knowing the route to get there can put your mind at ease.

Arrive at the venue early: If you are weaving in and out of traffic desperately trying to beat the clock, you will be flustered even before you get there. Arriving early allows you to chitchat with audience members ahead of time. This helps you to bond with audience members and serves to "warm you up" before going on stage.

Take time to "visualize" success: It is common for coaches to have their athletes imagine themselves making great plays. I believe in the power of positive visualization and use it frequently. When I am driving to any important event in which I have to perform or accomplish something, I imagine myself being confident, knowledgeable and successful. Try it sometime. It works.

Jeff Beals is an Omaha speaker and author who can be reached at info@jeffbeals.com.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Please keep it clean, turn off CAPS LOCK and don't threaten anyone. Be truthful, nice and proactive. And share with us - we love to hear eyewitness accounts.

You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.