Articles about performance anxiety, aka “stage fright,” usually start the same way: Surveys reveal that people fear public speaking more than anything else, including death. Well, I’m pleased to report that’s no longer true. Snakes and heights preceded all other fears for Canadians, according to a 2015 survey funded by the Canadian Cancer Society. However, public speaking still ranked third on the list of things that filled us with fright, so I suppose there’s still work to do.
If speaking or performing in front of people freaks you out, you’re hardly alone. Stage fright is super common. To quote Mark Twain: “There are two types of speakers: Those that are nervous and those that are liars.” Even people who enjoy public speaking or are elite performers get nervous. Adele told Rolling Stone, “I’m scared of audiences. . . . One show in Amsterdam, I was so nervous I escaped out the fire exit. I’ve thrown up a couple of times.” It hasn’t exactly held Adele back, and it doesn’t need to hold you back either.
Presenting in public is a high-value skill
Psychologists and biologists have developed a comprehensive understanding of performance anxiety, both what causes it and how to manage it. That’s a good thing, because the ability to get up in front of people is a skill well worth having. Communication skills rank second as the most important “soft skill” that employers look for, according to a 2014 survey of Canadian employers. In a 2015 analysis by LinkedIn, the most sought-after “soft skill” in the workplace was “communication”—and that includes communicating in public to multiple people.
Stage fright is a thing we can work with
If you have stage fright, you already know how it feels—the racing heart, the stomach butterflies—but here’s what’s actually happening in your body and mind.
Your sympathetic nervous system, which governs the flight-or-fight response, takes over and floods your body with norepinephrine and other hormones (Science, 2011). These hormones trigger a surge of energy and an increase in your breathing and heart rate. Meanwhile, the parts of your brain dealing with rational thought begin to go off-line. This would be a perfectly healthy and useful response if you were facing down a saber-toothed tiger. In that situation, you need to default to instinct (e.g., run). Unfortunately, the fear response is less helpful when we’re trying to deliver a piano concerto or speech. Today, our fears are usually not about immediate, serious dangers. But we can perceive danger in being judged negatively or critiqued, and that can trigger the same old responses in us.
We can deal with this. Anxiety about giving public performances is eminently treatable; the main problem is a lack of information. In a 2011 study of 160 music students, half of the respondents admitted that they knew little or nothing about coping strategies for stage fright (International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health). Yet two in three expressed willingness to accept support, and all of them wanted to learn more.
4 ways to slay the angst and own the show
1. Cognitive behavioural approaches
Cognitive behavioural (“CB”) techniques are an effective way to reduce performance anxiety, research shows. “It involves engaging in different behaviours to evaluate the outcome in order to adjust your thoughts and beliefs,” says Dr. Lynn E. Alden, Professor of Psychology and Clinical Psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. These three strategies can help:
1. Graded exposure
Create a “fear hierarchy”: a list of situations that make you anxious, arranged from least to most anxiety-provoking. Then tackle these situations one at a time. For example, “Maybe it’s simply speaking up in class, even if you’re not giving a formal presentation, just answering questions. Maybe next you join an organization where you can present and get feedback or the next class you sign up for is a public speaking class,” says Dr. Martin Antony, Professor of Psychology at Ryerson University, Ontario, and author of The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook: Proven, Step-by-Step Techniques for Overcoming your Fear (New Harbinger Publications, 2008). “You’re practising public speaking in different scenarios until it’s less scary.”
2. Challenge automatic thoughts
“Examine the unhelpful thoughts that contribute to your fears of public speaking, and look at the evidence in a more balanced and realistic way,” suggests Dr. Antony. “The odds of having some sort of lifelong terrible consequences from a class presentation are minimal.” The process looks like this:
- Identify the thought that accompanies your anxiety; for example, “My presentation is going to go horribly, and I’ll never be good enough.”
- Challenge that thought with questions like these:
- What is the evidence that your presentation will go badly?
- Why should the quality of your presentation determine your worth as a person?
- Once you have recognized the flaws in your thinking, replace the original thought with a more helpful and less distorted one, such as, “I’ve prepared extensively for this presentation and have no reason to think it will go badly. Plus, it’s just a presentation; even if it did go badly, that wouldn’t impact my life in any major way.”
3. Reframe anxiety as something positive
Those sensations of pre-performance anxiety you feel in your body? Just reframe them as excitement, instead of something sinister. Sped-up heart, fluttery stomach—these occur if you have performance anxiety, sure, but also if you’re about to meet Rihanna or find out if you made the soccer team.
Consider also that the physiological changes brought on by stress are, in many ways, specifically designed by evolution to improve performance (Emotion, 2014). Studies have shown that viewing anxiety symptoms as excitement and reframing them as helpful can improve performance in public speaking, musical performance, and sports. It’s easy to do: In one study, participants accomplished it simply by saying “I am excited” out loud before performing (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 2014).
“Try to turn your nervousness into excitement; positive thinking is extremely effective if practiced regularly,” says Twila M., a third-year undergraduate at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, USA.
2. Mindfulness-based methods
Mindfulness, a simple mental practice derived from meditation, is also super helpful for coping with stage fright. I’m a mindfulness teacher, so I’m all about using these techniques to handle uncomfortable thoughts and situations. And I have science backing me up. Research has shown that mindfulness can reduce anxiety (Clinical Psychology Review, 2013; Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2010). Performance anxiety is no exception. I feel anxious whenever I present in front of people, and my mindfulness practice is what gets me through it. Try these two strategies:
1. “Floating noting”
That’s my label for this ancient technique:
When anxious thoughts arise, mentally label them “thinking.”
When uncomfortable sensations in your body arise, mentally label them “feeling.”
When I get anxious about a presentation, I close my eyes and start labelling. The pounding of my heart and the butterflies in my stomach become simply “feeling.” Thoughts like “I’m going to mess up” or “People are going to laugh” or “Sweet, merciful Oprah, why am I doing this?” become simply “thinking.”
When we label thoughts “thinking,” we don’t buy into their stories. When we label body sensations “feeling,” we can observe them without getting frightened or overwhelmed by them.
2. The mindful pause
This takes 30 seconds and has four simple steps:
- Take a slow, deep breath. Fill your lungs, then exhale slowly.
- Open your attention to the sensations in your body. Let yourself notice whatever comes up: warmth, tingling, pressure, or the touch of clothing. There’s no need to evaluate the sensations as “good” or “bad.” This step needn’t take longer than one in-breath or out-breath. Stay with it longer if you like, but it can be that quick.
- Pay gentle attention to the sensation of air touching your nostrils as you breathe. Just like the previous step, this step can be as short as one in-breath or one out-breath.
- Reengage with the world, without hurry. Open your eyes if you’d closed them and carry on with your day.
3. Practical prep strategies
Best way to conquer stage fright? “Know what you’re talking about,” says Dr. Mike Mescon, Dean Emeritus at Georgia State University in the US. When it comes to public speaking, you can practice CB and mindfulness strategies until your brains leak out your ears, but there’s no substitute for preparation and understanding what makes a great presentation. I say that as someone who speaks in front of large audiences pretty often.
- Practice: Rehearse more than you think you need to. You want to be so comfortable with the material that it’s almost boring for you. Speak up: You’re talking quieter than you think. “Practice in front of people you trust and feel comfortable with so you can get their feedback. Practice in front of a mirror. Practicing in the area you’ll be speaking helps too,” says Brianna M., a fourth-year undergraduate at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick.
- Rehearse in front of a friend: They’ll spot opportunities for improvement that you can’t on your own. Video yourself so you can rehearse in front of you, too.
- Embrace the pause: It gives you time to collect your thoughts, sounds better than “um,” and adds dynamism to a presentation. As 19th-century English poet and essayist Martin Farquhar Tupper said, “Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech.”
- If you’re using slides, keep the text to a minimum: People can’t read and listen at the same time. I use almost no text and keep my slides largely image-based. That said, images can be more powerful than words. And it’s fine to provide source references on a slide or in a handout.
- If you want to have a written reference on hand, use note cards with bullet points: Reading from a script sounds stilted; bullet points can jog your memory while letting you express yourself in a natural-sounding way.
4. A fearless alter ego
Here’s a solution that comes straight from celebrity performers: Create an alter ego. Beyoncé’s tough, fearless stage persona, “Sasha Fierce,” inspired both Adele and actor/singer Hayden Panettiere to create alter egos of their own to combat anxiety related to performing. Adele’s is called “Sasha Carter” (a fusion of Sasha Fierce and June Carter), while Hayden’s remains a mystery. Hayden, if you’re reading this, I suggest “Acty McSingFace.”
Lynn E. Alden, PhD, R. Psych, Professor of Psychology and Clinical Psychologist; Director of Clinical Training, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.
Martin Antony, PhD, ABPP, Professor of Psychology, Ryerson University in Toronto; Author of The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook: Proven, Step-by-Step Techniques for Overcoming your Fear (New Harbinger Publications, 2008).
Rachel Koslowski, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist, New York City.
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