Whether it's a speech at a professional meeting, a wedding toast, or competing in a sports event, sweaty palms and shaky knees are commonplace when speaking or performing in front of a group of people. In fact, most people experience some form of performance anxiety, even if it’s only mild. A lot can be at stake, since a good public showing might advance a career, for example. Yet fear can trip anyone up with an increased heart rate and a suddenly blank mind.
It seems impossible, but high-profile performers, like singers Adele and Rhianna, suffer stage fright just like the rest of us. Sometimes, such phobia may be part of a larger issue that can include symptoms such as dry mouth, nausea, stuttering, tachycardia, changes in vision, tics, and even tremors. An extreme fear of public speaking is a subtype of social anxiety disorder, and some 7 percent of the adult American population suffers from this condition.
Stage fright can be devastating both professionally and personally, but it’s not considered a full-blown phobia. However, an extreme fear of public speaking is a phobia called glossophobia. Glossophobia is a subset of social phobia or the fear of social situations where one is being watched or judged by others.
Someone might have performance anxiety in the days, weeks, or months leading up to the performance. Just before going on stage, they may feel tense, fidgety, or lightheaded; their hands or voice might shake. Their heart might pound faster, and they may sweat more. They may experience gastrointestinal symptoms, like nausea and stomach pain, with this common type of social anxiety.
The fear of speaking or performing in public is often driven by embarrassment or worry over how someone will be perceived and judged by others. It can be impacted by a variety of factors, including how well the performer knows their material, the size of the audience, whether audience members are friends and family or strangers, etc.
When individuals are scared of public speaking, their fear arouses the autonomic nervous system, triggering a fight-flight-or-freeze reaction. In addition, false beliefs about public speaking and negative thoughts about oneself as a speaker can lead to poor performance. Situational factors—like a new location or different audience—can also be detrimental. And the speaker’s confidence in their skill level can play a key role how well they perform.
Yes, approximately 1 in 4 individuals report feeling anxious about having to present their ideas in front of an audience. Fortunately, there are many techniques that can help people overcome their fear of public speaking.
While stage fright can be distressing in the moment, it is not a mental disorder.
Stage fright, also known as performance anxiety, is generally considered a subtype of social anxiety because it involves fear of social situations. However, people who have stage fright do not necessarily have trouble with other common types of social anxiety, like meeting new people or eating in public.
According to some speech experts, certain people are born with a fear of public speaking, but they can still take steps to prevent stage fright.
There are many practical tips for overcoming the anxiety associated with stage fright. The first is to have a firm grip on the topic or situation at hand—winging it doesn’t usually work. Practice helps, and rehearsing in front of a mirror or a friend while using index cards, if necessary, is even better. Finally, it is essential to prepare for inevitable questions, which, again, goes back to being very familiar with the topic at hand.
Simple adjustments can help ease this fear—for example, bring notes, don’t convince yourself that you will bomb, and make eye contact to reduce the tension. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can also calm the mind before a big event. With proper treatment, people can conquer stage fright and excel in a variety of public performances.
Do your homework: Figure out who your audience is and what matters to them. Having content that you know provides value will help build your confidence and reduce your fear of public speaking. Identify what specifically scares you about an upcoming performance and work on solutions to that.
A little emotional intelligence can help you manage public speaking anxiety. First, acknowledge that your fear is emotional, not rational: You have practiced and prepared, and you’re ready to present. Employ positive self-talk and psyche yourself up for the performance (e.g., listen to music or meditate). Relax your body. Stretch. Give yourself time to rehearse on stage, if possible. Visualize giving a great performance in your mind.
Even non-naturals can improve their public speaking by following a few expert tips. Keep it short; an audience’s attention span starts to wander after 25 minutes. Only address points that are useful to the audience and not obvious. Follow up with a call to action. Add flavor with compelling statistics and anecdotes. Make a human connection by mingling with the audience beforehand and actively engaging them in the presentation.
Learn relaxation techniques to conquer the fear of public speaking by lowering your heart rate, controlling your breathing, and releasing muscle tension. Challenge and reframe any unhelpful beliefs. Shift the focus from performing to communicating valuable information. Be thoroughly prepared, and seek out opportunities to practice. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
People of find that once they are on stage, they can access flow, a state of optimal engagement and enjoyment, and all their fear melts away. There are also steps that people can take to flip the script on performance anxiety. For instance, they can stop viewing performance as a threat and instead see it as a challenge, thus increasing their self-efficacy and reducing stress.