Managing Stage Fright


Clammy hands. Heart beating at 120 BPM. Mind racing. A swarm of butterflies colonizing in your stomach. 3. 2. 1...

The first time I got on stage I nearly blacked out. I was sitting down, meticulously going over the details of my act - playing the perfect version of it over and over in my mind, making sure I hadn't missed a thing. It was for my middle school talent show. Unsure as to why I even signed up in the first place - it was too late now. A few minutes before I went on, I stood up from the chair, seemingly too quickly because all of the blood from my head rushed down to my lower extremities and I nearly fainted. You know, like a victorian woman. This sensation, being the first time I had ever experienced it (age 12), unsurprisingly added to my neurosis. I had an overwhelming case of what's known as "butterflies in your stomach", or "the jitters", or simply - "stage fright". Nonetheless I regained most of my consciousness and went out on stage in front of nearly 200 people and did what I had spent weeks practicing to do (which is a whole other story which I may or may not write about in the future). 

It's no surprise that public speaking is one of our greatest fears (in close competition with our fear of death). In this moment I could relate. Not only was I experiencing intense nerves but I also thought I was dying! Since then I've learned a thing or two about taming the pre-show heebie-jeebies both on stage and off.

Note: the "pre-show" here refers to the moments before a performance - but you might find these techniques applicable in other situations; before speaking in front of your peers (or strangers), or say, being nervous about confronting a friend about a serious issue. Whatever the "pre-show" is for you, I hope you find the following helpful.

Go with it. It's normal. Don't try and fight "the beast". You can always find a way to live with it harmoniously.  The production and distribution of adrenaline is a normal physiological response to anxiety (in an attempt for your body to cope) it's natural to sweat, shake and panic. It's a part of the instinctual flight or fight response and it works differently for everyone. But knowing this already puts you a step ahead of others who are crippled by the mere notion of being in front of people.

Breathe, Hydrate and Warm-up. It's what all the pro's do! It's so that your body can have the right conditions to balance out and focus. Why not do the same before delivering a keynote, or talking to your boss at the office? Be attentive to your breath as you take deep breaths through the nose and out through the mouth. A simple breathing technique is to breathe in for a count of 4 - hold for a count of 7 and breathe out through the mouth for a count of 8. It helps to regulate oxygen throughout the body. Drink plenty of water or herbal tea (caffeine might make you more nervous - or worse - crash!) and warm up your voice and body with some simple exercises (you can find basic physical stretches and warm-up techniques on YouTube but if you're serious about vocal warm ups I'd recommend booking a session or two with a vocal coach to get some tailor made exercises). 

Be prepared. Map out key points and review them until your comfortable. Not more than that. Over preparing, while occasionally good for catching mistakes, often does more harm than good. Instead think about the things that might sabotage you beforehand. I know quite a few performers/presenters that leave everything to the last minute. Don't. The last thing you need to worry about is picking up your dry cleaning! 

Visualize. If you can see the space beforehand do it. Occasionally some may get nervous about new and unfamiliar environments. It helps if you can visualize yourself performing beforehand. Being comfortable with your space is important to feeling at ease. 

As for me? These days there aren't many times I get nervous before a performance (occasionally when I'm performing a new show). Thankfully most of the times I'm experiencing a sense of euphoria on stage. A sense of "flow" as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to it. It's a realization that what I'm doing is what I love to do - and knowing that has a funny way of keeping your feet on the ground and the blood from draining from your brain.