What to do when stage fright hits

Jane Sheffield
Lead Trainer & Owner
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Last week I witnessed an attack of stage fright.

I was in the front row of a school drama performance. Right before the show started, I noticed a crowd gathering around a 10-year-old girl at the side of the stage. Let’s call her Maddy. Maddy had her head in her hands, was crying, and shaking her head.

Maddy was suffering from stage fright.

But the show must go on. And so must Maddy. So, her teacher kindly (but firmly) pushed her onto the stage to begin the performance.

With my heart in my mouth, I watched as her voice waivered, her eyes welled, and her breathing became difficult. A full physical fight-or-flight attack was playing out in front of me.

I wanted to rush up there and hold her hand but my kids said this would be super weird and creepy. Instead I sighed in relief as fellow performers smiled and nodded to her in encouragement.

Suddenly, the performance switched to a dance piece and Maddy leaped across the stage – all smiles, rhythm, and joy. Not a whiff of stage fright to be seen!

How did this happen?

How can someone go from shaking wreck to dancing queen? Well, when Maddy replaced standing at the front of the room, reciting her lines, to dancing with her class, she made the shift from ‘being on show’ to ‘being immersed in the experience’.

And this is something I see in my workshops all the time.

When I’m coaching a very nervous presenter who hates being the centre of attention, I often ask them to have another go at explaining their point by using the whiteboard. When I ask them how that felt, the standard response is “much better”.  And that is because they are DOING, not PERFORMING.

Full body experiences of stage fright that attack our voice, emotions and physical wellbeing are triggered when we stand there and recite or read. The best way to deal with them is to replace performance with talking to an actual person, moving, and getting out of our own head.

The next time you feel stage fright taking over your body, try this:

1.      Look at one person at a time and talk to them.

Talk to them just like you would in a one-to-one conversation. Then talk to someone else.  This shrinks the room, and gets you out of your head.  

2.      Give yourself a job that makes you move.

Walk across the stage. Point at your slides.  Get writing on the whiteboard.  More of how to do this here. By moving, we feel more like ourselves. Standing still in one place, does not make us feel comfortable – quite the opposite! So why do it? And as a bonus the movement helps to dispel nervous energy.

3.      Fake it until you become it.

Hands still shaking? Voice still wobbling? That’s ok. Act how you would act, if you were feeling really confident and comfortable. What would you do? How would you look? Would you look straight into people’s eyes? Would you smile? Would you take up space? Do that.

But, most importantly – take a leaf out of Maddy’s book and keep going.  It’s not the speaking that we hate. It’s the feeling that we dread. When we stop allowing ourselves to be  prisoner to this feeling, and instead, learn to communicate alongside it, it ceases to have control over us.

Go Maddy. You rock!

Stop presenting. Start talking

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