Most people can avoid the kind of scrutiny that pro golfer Charlie Beljan endured when his panic attack was caught on national television last month. But you may be among the millions who privately struggle with the jitters before speaking in public.
Does your face redden, your heart pound or your mind go blank when you toast at a wedding? When you present work to your clients or raise your hand to ask or answer a question, do you get dizzy, even feel as if you might faint?
There are people who experience extreme physical and psychological distress before speaking in public. Some worry for weeks, even months in advance. Others suffer full-blown panic attacks at the mere thought of taking center stage.
While you may assume performance anxiety is relatively rare, it's actually one of the most commonly reported symptoms among all social fears. According to a recent Gallup poll, about 40 percent of all adults in the U.S suffer from some degree of stage fright.
My work leads me to speak regularly in public — on radio, television, and in front of live audiences — and like many, I've had my fair share of jitters. Those who know me are surprised since I've been a performer for most of my life. I danced professionally until my early 20s and after that, I modeled and acted in TV commercials. In fact, during those performances, I rarely felt much anxiety. As a ballerina, everything was choreographed and rehearsed with little left to serendipity. As a model, there's not much to worry about after stylists finish with your hair, makeup, and clothes. Even acting in commercials requires little spontaneity, with the copy memorized and a director managing every precious second. Besides, if you messed up, there was always another take!
Everyday public speaking is different. The scripts are our own, and we don't usually get second or third takes. Moreover, our audiences are often people we know. Whether it is a hall-full of professional peers, a class full of students, or a table full of dinner guests, stepping out on the stages of daily life can create much more vulnerability and therefore, anxiety.
Below are some tips that have reliably eased my own fears. They are based on cognitive behavior therapy, one of several methods psychologists use to treat performance anxiety (desensitization and medication being among others). CBT helps people understand their reactions to anxiety and provides ways to gain control over it. Here are 10 tips that I have found most helpful while speaking in public.
1. Normalize your nervousness: Many people assume other speakers have an easier time, but the truth is, almost everyone feels a certain amount of stage fright. Have you noticed how many hands tremble and voices quiver as actors accept their awards? (Lawrence Olivier and Paul Newman are two who have admitted to being almost paralyzed by live appearances.) The intensity of anxiety is not a good indicator of how your talk is actually perceived. Once you get started, the jitters tend to go away — often in less than a minute, even if it feels longer — and rarely impact your speech.
2. Minimize the anticipation: The greatest discomfort for most people is waiting for their moment in the spotlight. We call this anticipatory anxiety. The key to staying calm is not getting nervous about feeling nervous. Once the "fight or flight" reaction starts, it is tough to shut it down. Find reliable ways to distract yourself in the days and hours before your speech. Right before you speak, take deep steady breaths to slow down the adrenaline rush. Short-term meditation also works.
3. Productive preparation: While distraction helps avoid anticipatory anxiety, investing time in rehearsing is necessary. Practice your speech in front of a mirror. Go over your opening lines — even memorize them — so that you don't have to think about how you'll begin. Performance anxiety is often most palpable at the beginning of a speech. If your first few sentences feel hard wired into your brain, they can be said as if on autopilot. Preparing your opening this way will likely lower the risk for continued anxiety.
4. Know your environment: Familiarize yourself with the venue where your speech will be given so you are comfortable when the time comes to speak. It's why there is often a lighting and sound check before keynote addresses. Go to your convention hall, stand up at the podium, or use your imagination to envision yourself in these settings. Finding a balance between controlling as much as you can, while recognizing there will be some things you can't control, is key to not letting your nerves interfere.
5. Wait for quiet: If there is applause as you start your speech, pause while it dies down. It's another way to take control, conveying that you are in charge of when you will begin. Use those moments to breathe, smile, look around the room, and nod your head as if to say, "thank you." You can look as if you are taking it all in, but meanwhile, it gives you a couple of seconds to collect your thoughts.
6. Make the start easy: There are introductions that typically precede speeches. "We'd like to welcome our guest of honor," or "let's move to our next presenter," are common ones. Practice your opening lines with an intro in mind, so when you hear it, you aren't taken by surprise. Then start with a simple acknowledgment of your MC or your audience, with something as banal as "thank you for the kind words," or "thank you all for joining me tonight." This gives you additional time to calm down your nerves and gets things going smoothly.
7. Break the ice: When possible, it's great to start presentations with an anecdote that breaks the ice. Depending upon your audience, a personal story works well. If you can make a joke out of your jitters, that works too. By the time you start talking about the content, the fears often dissipate. One speaker I heard said, "I was up all night thinking about what I wanted to say today, but the words flew out of my mind," People nodded as if knowing exactly what he meant and within moments his wandering words returned.
8. Take charge: Some people say, "imagine your audience naked," as a way to keep calm. It's meant to make the audience seem more vulnerable and to disarm the power they are perceived to have. But I find there are better ways to feel in charge. Vulnerability results from the fear of being humiliated or losing control. Recognize that neither is likely. Control comes from the proper mindset (which is what these tips provide) and good preparation. If you have rehearsed well, assume that one sentence will follow the other until your confidence gains traction. The truth is, most often people want to hear what you have to say and are eager to like you. Envision acceptance in their eyes, rather than the potential for criticism.
9. Connect to your listeners: Some find it helpful to make eye contact with people they know in the audience — mates, kids, or friends — while others find comfort in anonymity. Whatever relaxes you is fine, but remember to speak as if you are having a conversation. Talk "to" your listeners, not "at" them. Find kind, smiling faces to encourage you on and connect with as many as possible. Even if your speech doesn't go as well as you would like, people will remember and appreciate your connection to them.
10. Use a cheat sheet: Take a piece of paper and write down your main talking points and the people you want to remember to thank. Hold it in your hand or put it in your pocket. Keep in mind that if you forget to mention an idea or two, or even if you leave out someone's name, it rarely matters in the long run. But having those bullet points available will keep you feeling calmer. Props can sometimes help calm nerves even if you don't use them.
My practice is filled with performers whose jobs are all about taking center stage — professional actors, athletes, news anchors, and CEOs — but I also work with everyday people who are asked to speak in front of audiences. Some talk about debilitating panic — the kind that put golfer Charlie Beljan in the hospital. Others feel milder forms of anxiety and have learned to accept that jitters are just part of the performing experience.
Unless you perform regularly, being in the spotlight is very challenging. If you expect it to be — and prepare yourself using these tips — then you may get through your performance with less wear and tear. When it's over you may end up thinking that you managed to pull it off rather well in spite of your fears. And if you do, the next time will be a lot easier.
How do you deal with being in the spotlight? Share tips that you find helpful.
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City.