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Managing Stage Fright without Fight or Flight

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Managing Stage Fright without Fight or Flight
Written By: Sandy Bjorgen, IMPROV-able Results ~ 3/14/2024


Are you planning to give a talk? Are you anxious? Is there a little voice inside of your head that’s telling you you’re going to fail and should abort the mission?

I was once so shy that I couldn’t even talk to myself in the mirror! I’m an RSP – that’s a Recovered Shy Person. I worked hard to achieve what I once thought impossible: to actually enjoy being up front. Here are just a few of many things that helped me move forward – maybe they’ll help you too:

When I said I got so nervous being on display that I avoided it, a friend asked, “Could that feeling be excitement?” I’d never thought of that. Reframing my symptoms of anxiety helped me focus less on my fears and more on the people I wanted to help. Some anxiety was still there, but also excitement about being able to communicate something of value. This helped me turn my nerves into nerve and energize my performance and audience.

Someone once said, “Don’t fight stage fright and try to eliminate it. You can’t.” Trying makes it worse. You can’t wish it away. You need to acknowledge it, accept its presence. Talk to it: tell it you know it wants to keep you safe but you need to step outside of your comfort zone, even if just a bit, in order to grow. Ask what’s it’s afraid of? This can help you better understand what you need to work on – and what old beliefs and messages you can let go of because they no longer serve you.

Ask yourself these 3 questions – they can be particularly helpful in building confidence:

  1. “What’s the worst that could happen?” Be honest. Go to extremes: you are interrupted and lose your place, people look bored, you’re booed, you fall off the stage. See, it can always be worse than you imagined. Though unlikely. Going to extremes might make you laugh and realize it likely won’t be a catastrophe, even if not everything goes smoothly.

  2. “What’s the best that could happen?” What if your performance was perfect and everyone raved about you? Again, go to extremes. Everyone is riveted on you, gives you a standing ovation, awards you a Best Speaker trophy. Okay, that might make you laugh too. Great! Now, ask yourself, “Can I be okay with being good enough?” Trying to be perfect is too much pressure. No one is perfect. You might think you did a perfect job, but there’s always someone you can’t reach. That’s normal.

  3. “What would good enough look like?” Maybe doing a little better than last time - a small improvement, baby steps! Or, if it’s your first time, setting a small, manageable goal. Lowering your standards can be hard, but thinking that it means you’re terrible is not helpful. Think of speakers you’ve seen: were they all perfect? Did they have to be perfect to be valuable and enjoyable? What is perfect anyway? Would you tell your best friend that, if she weren’t perfect, it would be a disaster? Hopefully not. So, don’t tell yourself that either.

Seek out a local Toastmasters club. You’ll meet a lot of friendly, kind, and helpful people working on becoming more confident and effective speakers. You’ll have many opportunities to practice: speaking briefly off the cuff, introducing someone, leading a meeting, giving short talks. You’ll learn a lot about how to give and receive constructive feedback.

Another encouraging place to get acquainted is a local National Speakers Association club. A member told this story: during a speech, he became very animated and started moving closer, then too close, to the edge of the stage. Shortly after he fell to the floor, he grabbed the mike lying beside him and said, “I will now take questions from the floor.” The audience cracked up. When you’re thinking, “What’s the worst that could happen?” think about possible ways to milk it for humor. Ways to turn a misstep into a step up. Your audience wants to be informed, entertained, and inspired. They want you to succeed. You can inspire others to take similar risks. They’re human too!

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Sandy Bjorgen
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