News & Insight
October 2009

Fear and Excitement at the Podium

Stephanie Silverman

Many professional speakers and performers claim to experience some version of stage-fright no matter how many times they step in front of a group. You are probably aware of the legendary pre-show jitters reported by the likes of Barbara Streisand, Lawrence Olivier and Carly Simon, but it may surprise you to find out that even people like Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud and Donny Osmond (yes, even Donny!), among many others, have reported significant anxiety prior to performing for a crowd. Now you may be thinking: That's just great, Stephanie. So, you're saying that even the pros can't bear performing. Then how can I be expected to do it? I'll opt for root canal, thanks. - Or something to that effect. Here's where that very powerful sensory capability - perception - comes in. We have a choice.

One has to wonder: if it's so horrible, why do these people continue to do it? One answer: It's Exciting! The second question that comes to mind is: How do they manage it and still get out there? It is often a matter of PIP: Perception, Imagination and Practice.

Although the physical sensations associated with anxiety really and truly feel like those that immediately precede a painful death, they are purely the product of the mind and, as such, may be manipulated. However convincing the feelings may be, I have not heard of anyone actually dying from speaking in public. Additionally, many of the sensations we associate with fear and anxiety are shared with an emotion that we actually enjoy: excitement. What would happen if you made the choice to try to shift your perception by interpreting these feelings as excitement and see if they can propel you forward into the experience? Too much to ask, you say? I don't think so. It is possible with a little practice.

Don't get me wrong; like Babs and Abe and Donny, I have experienced those scary feelings. I have been gripped by fear and, I assure you, I have been seduced by the Dark Side. In my case, the darkness often manifests as a tiny and loud-mouthed critic who sits just behind me hissing in my ear about 1) how it can't be done; or 2) who am I to tell anyone about anything; or 3) how I'm not good enough; or 4) how I will blow it so badly that no one will ever forget it and my failure will be a favorite topic at cocktail parties for years to come.

Even with this nay-sayer on my shoulder, when it comes to things that involve what I want or need or that would be good for me to try, I always strive to direct my perception toward whatever interpretation offers the greatest opportunity. I try to see it as an exciting challenge and to assess the consequences in concrete, and not purely emotional, terms. What am I doing listening to an imaginary critic whose opinion I don't respect anyway?!? My imagination is expansive enough to create that heckler on my shoulder, so it should be more than creative enough to quiet her down. Imagination and Perception.

One thing I value about coaching people with these fears is that we have an opportunity to really look into the specific underlying issues and address them effectively. One tool I use is a video camera. It can be intimidating at first, but the fear of the camera is easily overcome with practice and it serves as an invaluable tool to help isolate the areas that need work. The best part? The camera also shows when the work is paying off, which helps to boost confidence and demonstrate in full color your ability to progress and succeed.

Something to try in the moment, as you feel the fight-or-flight responses beginning to ramp up prior to a particularly scary presentation or meeting, is to talk to yourself. You may want to do this silently to avoid the possibility of being involuntarily institutionalized but, if you can find a place to be alone, then go ahead and speak out loud. Here are some of the helpful things you can say to yourself:

  • I am not dying.
  • These feelings I'm feeling are a prehistorically programmed and misdirected autonomic nervous response that should be stored up for real emergencies (like running from a charging woolly mammoth.)
  • 1, 2, 3, 4. (This counting refers to counting out the breathing, one of many relaxation techniques I use with clients who struggle to calm the system and slow down.)
  • Hmmm...My throat feels dry. I should make sure I have some water up there.
  • Hmmm...My palms are damp. I'll have to remember to bring a tissue or handkerchief when I do this next time.
  • I AM NOT DYING. (it bears repeating)

It may seem silly and obvious but it is an effective tool to "talk yourself down" when fear threatens to derail you. No disrespect to Sir Lawrence or Carly, but these fears are irrational in the sense that they are not attached to real danger. Though it feels like the end, it isn't. Talking to yourself and thinking through the reality of the situation and what can be done about it shows your autonomic nervous system who's boss. You're probably not afraid of the dark anymore, but you may have been as a child. You learned to diminish that fear and you can do it again with this one. Practice.

I mentioned relaxation as an important part of gaining control of these fears. Keep in mind that, in addition to how bad it feels, we are not as good at what we are doing when we are stressed. This is especially true of spoken communication, which depends on a high level of concentration and energy, as well as clarity of thought - all of which are compromised when we are stressed and tired. You may be able to "wing it" going through the motions at work on a particularly light day, but try giving a presentation when you can't concentrate. It's miserable for everyone - not just you - and generally a complete waste of time (which takes that time from other things we need to be doing, leading to more stress!). You may have a long and proud history of well-earned stress, but anyone can learn to be more relaxed if they approach it as a skill worthy of development.

Because of how we're pushed by demands at work and at home, feeling stressed is almost unavoidable. We often begin to feel that being really stressed out is a great way of demonstrating to the world how hard we're working. The more stress: the more admirable the effort. This is all fine and well until you find yourself completely lost at a very important meeting and realize that YOU ARE THE ONE TALKING. Or, more seriously, the annual check-up starts showing serious stress-related health conditions. I use a broad array of relaxation methods and tools to help my clients work on stripping away the stress so that they may be more focused, confident and present in their communication.

Who you are and how you think about yourself will have a lot to do with how easily you take to these changes. If, somewhere along the line, you decided that being a professional and being a human being are mutually exclusive states of existence, your road will likely be a bit longer.

It is my belief and experience that everyone can improve and feel better about the prospect of speaking in front of a group, or even in an intimidating one-on-one situation. You can improve by working on this on your own and, if you want some objectivity, customized attention and help, you can get a great deal done with a coach. Still, it's not always realistic to expect these feelings to disappear altogether. The goal is to learn to live with the symptoms and lighten their effect through practicing these and other techniques. In this way you may find that public (or other) speaking is not as miserable and frightening as you first thought. And it's no woolly mammoth.

WJM Faculty Member Stephanie Silverman is an executive coach specializing in public speaking and all areas of spoken communication. She has been working as a performer and voice/speech/presentation coach for over ten years. Stephanie is also a voice over performer and may be heard narrating numerous audio books, in commercials, corporate recordings and educational tools.

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