When you watch professional speakers in action, several questions might come to mind: How do they rely on notes so rarely? Do they have photographic memories? How do they give the same material repeatedly, yet keep their initial enthusiasm?
However, the question you’ll be most likely to ask is: Do professional speakers experience stage fright, just like business and civic leaders do when they face audiences—and if so, how do they control their stage fright, and speak with such obvious confidence and poise?
Here’s how several highly respected professionals responded to that question:
Terry Brock, based in Orlando, Florida, advises: “Focus on the audience. This is the most important step. If I focus on them and their needs, I do much better. If I think about myself I don’t do as well.”
Terry’s advice is absolutely on target. Thinking mostly about yourself in the speaking situation means that every potential distraction will lower your confidence level. When an audience member yawns or checks her watch, you’ll assume you are failing to connect with everybody. Yet focusing on the audience allows you to put distractions in proper perspective. A couple of people fidgeted—so what? You’ll recapture their attention as you speak passionately about your topic, which totally consumes you from your first sentence onward.
Philip Van Hooser of Princeton, Kentucky, arrives early “to mix and mingle,” so he will “make connections with the audience members before I take the stage.”
Think about that approach. Which is easier—talking to strangers, or talking to acquaintances? Almost unanimously, we prefer speaking to somebody we have met. As Van Hooser puts it, we have made a connection. So whenever you can get there a half hour ahead to introduce yourself to participants as they enter the building, you will reduce your anxiety. When you stand to speak, you will have a dozen or so people who know you already and await your message eagerly.
Port Washington, Wisconsin’s Joan Stewart says, “I tell myself that if I’m nervous, I’m supposed to be. Johnny Carson revealed during numerous interviews that almost every night before he was introduced, he was a bundle of nerves and had terrible stage fright.”
In short, there’s no reason to feel unusual or weird because you’re nervous about your presentation. Did you know that Barbra Streisand and Carly Simon avoided live audiences for years because they feared rejection, and confined their singing to recording studios? Even the renowned actor Laurence Olivier took an extended leave from the stage, fearful that he would forget his lines. Clearly, stage fright challenges even the most famous and talented performers. You’re not alone, and like them you still have immense talent to share with audiences.
From Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Jeff Mowatt reports that he comforts himself by realizing that “even though I may feel nervous, it doesn’t show.”
Yes, your stomach is rumbling, your mouth seems parched, you’re a bit unsteady on your knees, and you’re perspiring more than usual. Fortunately, these situational responses remain private, unless you make the mistake of calling attention to them—which even novice speakers learn not to do. Truly, here’s where using video to record and then analyze your speeches becomes reassuring. When you see yourself as the audience saw you, you will get confirmation that your nervous symptoms are internal, not external.
Responding from Stevensville, Michigan, Susan Wilson suggests: “Practice in your daily speaking what you need for success when giving a speech—eye contact, confident posture, smooth and strong voice, abdominal breathing, personal warmth.”
That’s a fresh, helpful slant on preparation, because most speech coaches recommend repeated rehearsals of your speech’s content, quite formally. Wilson, though, proposes additional, informal preparation through animated conversation. Following this suggestion, you will have to change your delivery very little when you face an audience—possible only increasing your volume.
Doug Smart, from Atlanta, Georgia, mentions: “I know exactly what I am going to say for the first 2 to 3 minutes.”
Other accomplished speakers would endorse that approach. After all, if you don’t capture your audience’s attention within the first three minutes, you have little chance of engaging them after that. Additionally, an energetic, confident start lets you know you are in control. Justifiably, you become optimistic about the remainder of your speech.
Chicago’s Christine Corelli puts her leading recommendation succinctly: “Positive self-talk.”
Specifically, we should repeat to ourselves silently: “This audience is hosting me because they consider me an authority on this topic. Not only that, the group has expressed strong interest in my content. And although I am keyed up for the occasion, with all the positive feedback I have heard after many other speeches to top-tier groups, I know I will succeed again this time. In fact, I can hardly wait until the introduction ends, so I can share valuable information with the audience.”
In summary: Though professional speakers continue to face some degree of apprehension with every speaking engagement, they have found thought patterns and actions that will work for other professional leaders as well. Try the ones we have considered, and you will welcome a new plateau of calm confidence with your next speaking opportunity.