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How to understand, overcome stage fright

  • Published Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013, at 12 a.m.

It is a well-worn cliche that speaking in public is our greatest fear – followed by the fear of death.

To quote Jerry Seinfeld in his TV show, “So, if you’re at a funeral, you’d rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.”

More than 80 percent of people experience some form of stage fright. If you feel butterflies in your stomach before any public appearance, your reaction is not anything out of the ordinary.

You can cope with stage fright by knowing and understanding more about it.

Many famous people, including actors, musicians, politicians and business executives, suffer from stage fright. Even an emcee introducing a speaker can be a victim.

Laurence Olivier, the man often considered the greatest actor of the 20th century, didn’t face the dreaded affliction until late middle age, but then it hit him hard. In one run at London’s National Theatre, Olivier had to have the stage manager push him onstage every night.

Stage fright is a feeling of nervousness that one gets before a speech, a recital, a dance performance or stage acting.

It is the fear or anxiety aroused in an individual who has to perform in front of an audience or before a camera.

The physical symptoms can include cold hands, dry mouth, fast pulse, nausea, nervous tics, shaky hands, shaky knees or trembling lips. The good news is that most of the fear occurs before you step on stage. Once you’re up there, it usually fades.

How can you control or overcome your stage fright?

1. Think about your audience. Are you going to present in front of a small or a large group? Do you know their backgrounds or interests?

Learning about them would help you to become more relaxed. Then, tailor your presentation to that particular group.

Dwelling on how you can help your audience in their business or in their lives will keep you focused and take your attention away from your own perceived shortcomings.

2. Exercise. Redirect the energy that causes those symptoms by changing its focus. Do some of your usual exercise before going to the venue.

Or try this one, which can be done quickly: Rub your hands together very fast, and then shake your hands very fast. Continue your natural way of breathing.

3. Breathing: Take a couple of deep breaths, and then breathe slowly at least 15 to 20 times. Your mind and body will slowly relax.

4. Practice: Some anxieties come because your speech is not rehearsed sufficiently. A well rehearsed speech increases self-confidence, which in turn decreases stress and anxiety. Practice aloud, using your furniture, your dog or the trees in your yard as your audience.

5. No caffeine: Avoid coffee, tea and other caffeinated beverages before your performance. Stimulants can add to your jitters. Also avoid carbonated drinks as you might burp in the middle of your presentation.

Instead, drink water (tepid rather than iced) before your presentation, and you can take sips of water to prevent your mouth from drying.

Finally, take to heart the words of former football coach Tom Landry, who had to overcome stage fright almost every time he spoke to an audience: “Walk through your fear with faith, and you’ll never let the fear of failure become the cause of failure.”

John Madden is a corporate trainer, speaking coach and author of “Leap, Don’t Sleep! – How to get different results by doing something different.” Reach him at 316-689-6932 or at www.LeapDontSleep.com.

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