The word conjures up sweaty palms, dry mouth, pounding heart, throat closing, butterflies in the stomach, a light-headed feeling…
Most people have felt some of these symptoms when preparing to speak in public, whether making a presentation, asking a question in a symposium or even offering an opinion in a meeting or a class.
Actors, singers, all types of performers experience some degree of stage fright, often at an opening, sometimes every evening before a performance. Is this a terrible situation? Something to be avoided?
When stage fright becomes handicapping, it becomes a problem. Why? Because it creates body stiffness, reduces vocal intonation, sometimes makes the speaker seem robotic, disinterested or at a minimum, less genuine.
The great Russian dancer, Rudolph Nureyev, used to be overwhelmed by stage fright before every performance. He would spend hours stretching and drinking copious amounts of tea and honey to release his tension.
The legendary jazz singer, Ella Fitzgerald, was supposed to dance during a talent show at the Apollo Theatre but she became so nervous she sang instead — and we’re probably all the beneficiaries of her way of coping with stage fright that night.
How can stage fright be good for you?
When you experience “performance anxiety,” the other name for stage fright, your adrenaline begins to flow and you raise your awareness level. If you focus that awareness and use it as a means of concentration, you can separate the content of what you want to say from the way you deliver your message. In other words, you split your objectives.
Every good speaker monitors his or her delivery while keeping the process of content flowing. If you read a prepared speech, especially if you’ve rehearsed adequately, you can concentrate more on delivery (maintaining vocal features and body language, as I’ve written about in previous articles.) For the most part, however, I advocate well rehearsed, more spontaneous speaking, if possible.
Many of the people I coach concentrate so much on the content of their presentation, they find it difficult to consider how they need to speak . Their attention is wrapped up in the ideas and words, not the dynamics of their voice, eye contact, body language and other important features that are essential in public speaking.
Raising your consciousness and monitoring how you speak will improve your presentation. Without a slight level of anxiety, it is easy to fall into a speech and movement pattern that conveys reduced enthusiasm, even lack of interest — creating a dull presentation.
Using a little “stage fright” to channel and focus your attention, not only on content, but delivery, can become a tool for a better presentation. Coping with stage fright will actually increase your confidence as a good speaker.
So let a small dose of adrenaline improve your performance, not freeze and handicap your speaking.
Check back soon for more thoughts on public speaking, communication skills, and speech pathology.