Overcoming Stage Fright

By Emily Lewis

Sweaty palms. A keen urge to pee despite plenty of visits to the restroom. Mixed martial artists sparring in my stomach. A shaky voice that sounds like I could cry at any moment. A flight instinct that wants to overpower fight.

This is me before giving a presentation; I get stage fright. But I’ve been giving presentations for almost five years now, and I have no intention of stopping.

What’s important to me

You may be wondering why I still do it, especially if you can even imagine the acute discomfort I described. The answer is simple: Since attending my very first web conference, I wanted to see myself represented. I wanted to see professional women sharing experiences and knowledge about web design and development. And the fastest way I could figure to make this happen was to do it myself.

Of course, when I envisioned this goal, I had no idea I suffered from stage fright. In fact, the first time it happened, I was shocked because I was so enthusiastic about talking and following through on a personal commitment. And I was angry at my body. Angry at a physical response that I couldn’t seem to get control of no matter what I told myself in the moment.

But as difficult as public speaking is for me, it doesn’t trump my goal. So along the way, I’ve cultivated a few habits that help make my fear response more manageable.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

I’ve learned that I can never prepare or practice too much. And I take a methodical approach to both, which gives me a sense of control that serves as a calming touchstone when stage fright strikes.

It starts with my prep. Once I know the topic I’m speaking on (this is often weeks, if not months, in advance) I start jotting down loose ideas in Evernote. I keep an eye on Twitter and my RSS feeds for related and complementary resources, and I add those to my note. It’s unstructured at this point, but this early process gets me in the mindset of focusing on my topic and distracts me from the pending act of public speaking.

A few weeks before the presentation, I convert these notes to a formal outline that serves as the basis for my deck and gets me thinking about my “script.” Once I get the outline into my deck, I spend a lot of time in Keynote. I organize and reorganize my slides, and then I re-organize some more. By the time I’m done, I know what I want to say when I look at any slide. My deck becomes my partner for the presentation; a familiar “face” that I know inside and out.

At this point, I often start getting nervous (yes, even weeks beforehand). This is when I focus on the design of my slides. For me, designing is fun, easy, and gives me something tangible to focus on — rather than irrational fear.

Practice, practice, practice

Once my deck is “done,” I start practicing. First, I do a run-through or two on my own to get my timing right. Sometimes this means tweaks to the deck. Sometimes it means tweaks to my script.

Second, I do a few more run-throughs on my own to really make sure my script conveys what I want. For at least one of these, I’ll record myself using my iMac and then watch it to see where I stumble, where I could be clearer, where I could pause … whatever. And then it’s back to the deck, if necessary.

Next up: practicing in front of loved ones. I’ve asked friends, family, and colleagues to be my presentation guinea pigs. These are the people who know me and already like me, so they provide a safe audience and experience where it is okay for me to mess up. These are the people I trust, so I know their feedback comes from a desire for me to succeed.

And their feedback is critical to my process. After giving them a preview of my presentation, I want to know:

  • Did any part of my presentation or deck confuse you?
  • What kind of questions did you have after I was done?
  • Was there something you wanted me to address that I didn’t?
  • Was the deck easy to see?
  • Did my deck and script work together well?
  • Was I doing anything with my body that was distracting?
  • Did I use any words or phrases that were distracting?
  • What would make the presentation better?

Depending on the answers to these questions, I’ll change my deck, adjust my script and make note of my body language and delivery. Time and a patient test audience permitting, I’ll do this all over again.

It’s a lot of work. But when I’ve done all of this, there is zero question in my head that I know my presentation — that I know my topic, inside and out. So even when stage fright strikes (and it always does), it isn’t as intense. I know I’ve done everything I can do, aside from removing my amygdala.

And being fully prepared and practiced is all anyone (including myself) can ask.

It’s not about me

Once I’m at the venue and attendees are starting to take their seats, my physical response often starts to override my “you are prepared” mantra. It is then that I try to shift focus away from me, because my presentation isn’t about me. It’s about my topic and the audience.

If I’m giving a presentation, it’s always on a topic I care passionately about. It’s always about something that is more important than how I feel in a given moment, especially irrational feelings. Focusing on my topic reminds me why I’m there: to share and educate, to inspire others to care, and to showcase an important area of a field that I love.

And in order to do this, I must think about the audience. Most attendees actually don’t notice my stage fright and, if they do, they simply won’t care if I can get my message across. They are there to learn from me. They are there to be inspired. Like my topic, their experience is far more important than my own personal fears.

Go with it

Even with all of these tools, I still get stage fright. But it isn’t a “state of being” during my presentation like it was when I started. It’s about 10 minutes long. Ten minutes of some damp palms, a few butterflies, and that damn shaky voice.

So I go with it. I accept that this is my body’s physical response, and I don’t fight it. I don’t get angry or frustrated anymore. That’s just an added distraction from my topic and my audience. It is what it is, and once I hit my stride, it disappears as if it never happened in the first place.

3 thoughts on “Overcoming Stage Fright

  1. Holly Berkley

    “I know I’ve done everything I can do, aside from removing my amygdala. ” You nailed it….it IS the amygdala part of the brain that sets off those alarm bells whenever we think about getting up in front of an audience. But the good news is that it’s possible to calm that little guy down in short order with a technique that’s being used by top speakers, performers and athletes.

    It’s called Quantum Energy Psychology, or “tapping” and it’s remarkably effective at removing the emotional charge from a past or anticipated event. For the past two decades, I’ve helped clients quickly and permanently clear fears, phobias and traumas that were impeding their success on stage, and their enjoyment of life. Frequently it only takes a few sessions to thoroughly clear the issue. No more sweaty palms!

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