Overcoming Stage Fright to Share Your Story

Earlier in the year, I had the honor of keynoting the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce Annual Banquet in my hometown of Coralville, Iowa. While I speak at conferences and corporate events throughout the world, I don’t do a lot of keynote speaking close to home. Leading up to the event, many said to me, “This is probably nothing for you because you do this all the time.”

Yes, as a professional speaker I do spend a lot of time speaking in large ballrooms full of people. However, these are often people I don’t know who I likely won’t see again. This was different. This was a room full of people I know. Several clients were at several different tables throughout the room. The University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business where I teach had another table. All of the city governments had tables. Several friends were in attendance. My wife was there! In short, this was an important event for me. As the date neared, these stakes came into focus and I was confronted with a case of stage fright. Luckily, I’m not alone.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 74% of Americans suffer from a speech anxiety, 5.3 million have a social phobia, and 3.2 million have a fear of crowded public places. Stage fright is a frequent concern I hear about as a teacher of communication skills. As Mark Twain put it, “There are two types of speakers: those who get nervous and those who are liars.”

So, what do you do to overcome stage fright?

Lay a Solid Foundation

This is going to sound akin to eating your vegetables but many speech anxiety problems can be alleviated through proper preparation. The more you practice, the better you you’ll know your talk. The more you know your talk, the less you’ll worry about what you’re going to say next and how you’re going to say it. You’ll know where to move and when to stand still. Being familiar with your talk pays off.

When you’re preparing, remember the primacy effect and the recency effect. These two rules of cognitive bias tell us that we remember the beginning and end of an event more than we remember the middle. As show time nears, I focus my final preparation on nailing the beginning and the ending of my talk. Hook them at the beginning and stick the landing at the end.

Plus, stage fright impacts you more in the moments leading up to a presentation. If you know your opening inside and out, it’ll be easier for you to roll into the rest of your talk.

Frame Your Mindset

In high school I acted in community musicals (surprising, right?). Our high school band teacher Mr. E conducted the pit orchestra. One day, I arrived early before a performance and discovered Mr. E sitting alone in the auditorium looking at the empty stage. I asked what was wrong and he replied, “Nothing. This is just what I do before a performance. It helps me center myself to sit in the audience and see where I’m going to be.” I’ve since learned that this technique is called ‘breathing the room’ and it’s an important step in overcoming fears by framing your mindset.

After I follow Mr. E’s advice, I further center myself by thinking about what it is that I’m there to do. Usually, I’m speaking about branding, marketing, or communication. These are things many struggle with. In reflecting on this, I remind myself that I’m there to help them.

One word of caution in framing your mindset: avoid the trap of telling yourself to “calm down.” Why? Because you’re already worked up! Your nervous system is in a highly aroused state. Instead of attempting the impossible—reducing this anxiety—reframe it. Why are you excited to be here?

Conversations Close the Distance

You’ve prepared and framed your mindset. It’s almost go time. How do you spend these final moments? Sure, you could pace around backstage. Or you would work the room. Wander around and meet a few folks. Especially those critical audience members seated in the first few rows. This helps close the distance between you and the audience. They aren’t strangers anymore. They’re your newest friends. Plus, you may be able to learn a few things about them that you can work into your remarks.

Knowing your crowd puts you at ease by making your presentation more of a conversation. And, as presentation expert and author Nancy Duarte says, “People don’t fall asleep during conversations, but they often do during presentations—and that’s because many presentations don’t feel conversational.”

Prepare, frame your mindset, and focus on conversations and you’ll be on your way to overcoming your stage fright as you share your story with your next audience.