Taming the Lion of Stage Fright

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As challenge draws to a close and the students are busy putting together their visual learning diaries, here’s a pertinent piece on handling stage fear from IDBM 2013 Alumni, the very awesome, Anna Vavilova.

My mom is a music teacher and all my childhood, she made me perform. From kindergarten to technical university, I was taking parts in plays or small sitcoms. It was a lot of fun. However, I never took it as a special skill, I thought it is just something I can do naturally very well: be on stage. One of my good friends, on the other hand, is a professional actress with many years of stage experience. Once at her workshop one of the participants bent over to me and whispered: “oh wow, she is just natural at this!” I couldn't help myself but burst into laughing. Turns out, it only takes a bit more than 15 years of hard work and experience to become a natural talent. In a way, this attitude is the same as going to the winner of Iron Man race and saying: “wow man you are so natural at triathlons, you got your natural talent at swimming and cycling and running…”

This formed my belief about public speaking as a skill that anyone can train. There are certain techniques that one can learn, practice and eventually master. However, there is always a step of overcoming self doubt and fright. Interestingly, the fright of being on stage is somewhere deep in our brain. For instance, if you look at kids preparing for small show for the parents in the kindergarten. There are kids who learn faster than others, remember their parts better, they rehearse without a single mistake. But they would freeze in front of the audience and would just sit in the corner through all concert. But then one day, they grab themselves together and do a flawless show. So I always asked myself: is it just time plus experience to take the fright away or is it something deeper than that?

“Presenting is always scary, because we stand on stage vulnerable and exposed, we want to give the very best of ourselves to the audience and we want to be heard and appreciated. It is okay to be scared, this is in our DNA”.

About a month ago I was going through serious emotional stress. I found myself not able to eat properly, feeling of dry throat, lack of deep sleep, fatigue and heart ache. And at one moment I was like: “wow, this is truly interesting. Isn’t it something I usually experience in the short term right before going on stage?” So I made this connection at the miserable time of my life and it inspired me to do a proper scientific research on topic. (Check out Robert Sapolsky, for instance, and his lectures about the psychology of stress). Turns out, our body, indeed, reacts to any stress in a very particular physical way. And it originates all the way from cave age. Imagine, as you come out of your cozy cage and suddenly see a lion jumping after you. All your vital systems in the body would shut down, heart would start pumping blood into your legs. Your brain would send you a strong signal: “RUN, RUN for your life! Everything else can WAIT!!!!”

Many of us, who have been in front of big stages, know this feeling of fright very well. And even though there is probably a temptation to run away from the lion of stage fright, we don’t. We go under the spotlight and present. Presenting is always scary, because we stand on stage vulnerable and exposed, we want to give the very best of ourselves to the audience and we want to be heard and appreciated. It is okay to be scared, this is in our DNA.

How to overcome stage fright? There is definitely no correct answer. In my opinion, one should go and present as often as possible. It is a way of expressing yourself. Because if you don’t speak up, you won’t ever be heard. And even if you can never really get rid of the Stage Fright Lion, you can definitely tame it with time.

BUT WHAT’S THE PRACTICAL ADVICE?

I found myself as a part of Talk The Talk non-profit organisation in Helsinki. At TTT we are trying to foster the interest of public speaking in Nordic communities. We believe that once public speaking becomes a simple skill in public minds then the attitude for learning the skill eases up as well.

“No matter from which stereotype or country or community you come from. Prepare and slay right here, right now”

Funnily enough, Talk The Talk started from the most obvious stereotypes in the startup community during pitching competitions. Finnish people would stereotypically compare themselves to Swedes. Swedes to Americans and so on. This formed the endless loop of someone being better than you on stage. So, Talk The Talk founders took this as a challenge. Now we say: “No matter from which stereotype or country or community you come from. Prepare and slay right here, right now”. And of course we combined the best practices from theater, presenting, pitching and mindfulness, to guide our workshop participants towards better stage presence.

During my personal experience with public speaking and presenting, I can definitely say that there are three main factors that have an impact on your presentation and those you can master on your own.

First: Crystal-clear message. Prepare your content and memorise it.

How: Before each presentation, no matter the size of the audience or the context, I recommend writing all your words down. Even if it seems like you know what you are talking about, it is a different brain part responsible for writing. Through writing you can find the new angle to your material, you can also finally estimate how much material you have and how long it takes to present it. After you are happy with the written material, read it out loud. When you read it out loud, you will start noticing the melody of the language. You will notice where to change the word or do a shorter sentence. Try noticing where to put important pauses so your audience has time to digest. After reading your presentation text several times, you have also engaged your motoric memory. So, notice how speaking it out loud becomes easier every time.

Second: be confident and find your stage presence.

How: Ideally, try to memorise your material by heart and rehearse it out loud as many times as you find comfortable. It seems like confidence comes from within the presenter, but confidence comes when you know exactly what you are doing and saying at every second on stage. If you have an opportunity to go on stage before presenting, just to feel the space and make yourself comfortable in it -- do it. If you don’t have the opportunity to go and feel the stage before the presentation, imagine it at home. Rehearse how you enter the stage and how you leave after the applause. These are all parts of the presenter’s journey. And never apologise for being unprepared. Be prepared instead.

Third: engage the audience, include them into your presentation or story.

How: Do your homework and research the audience. Try to think which touchpoints will help you engage the audience into a dialogue. After all, presenting is indeed just a form of a dialogue where presenter is leading the conversation. A practical advice comes around the style of your talk. Avoid speaking about yourself, rather, speak about them. Make your audience a part of your story. This might be a tricky part, but this is what Red Green Blue movement has been preaching for a long time. In your written speech notice the parts when you talk about yourself. Think how you can rephrase the sentence to make it about the people in the room. In addition, think about body language and eye contact. This is what you can rehearse at home with family or friends. Try talking about your day as you would present to the public. Make an eye contact and open your body. If you make it a simple home habit, it will pay off with bigger crowds.

As any skill, public speaking requires individual practice, group exercises and personal motivation. But once you start addressing it with the right habitual attitude, the results would amaze you. After every successful presentation, be kind to yourself, treat yourself, celebrate your effort and plan new stages to conquer. With experience you will find your own unique pattern of being successful and confident.

You can find more about Anna on her website. In addition, you we’ll be seeing more from Anna during Season 2 of Nordic Rebels, coming soon!