How my work as a therapist helped me to swap stage fright for stage presence (in just four weeks)
Two weeks ago, I stepped off a stage to be met by tearful hugs and high fives from strangers. It was my first foray into public speaking. Yet, for the twenty-five minutes that I spent in front of that audience, I felt grounded, purposeful, and at home. This, to say the least, came as something of a surprise.
I’m not going to pretend to be an aficionado of speechmaking. I gave one good talk to a humble audience of two-hundred. I hardly think I’ll be asking Obama to move on over any time soon. Yet, public speaking is the number one fear for many, and — regardless of the fact that I’m trained in helping people to let go of their phobias — a few weeks before the event I realized that I was far from immune myself.
This “how-to” piece covers the practical, cognitive, and emotional tools that I used to let go of my fear and deliver a presentation that I felt proud of.
Step 1: I prepared the hell out of it
Speaking was something that I was nervous about, so of course, the urge to procrastinate was strong. But there was no time for that. When I realized that I was making cups of tea that I really didn’t need, I started using Mel Robbins’ brilliant “5 Second Rule” to get the ball rolling.
It’s beautifully simple: act within five seconds of having a thought like, “I should start writing my talk” and you can circumvent the otherwise inevitable flood of rationalizations for your avoidance-craving (you know, the string of reasons why you should absolutely, definitely, categorically not start writing because the washing still needs to be done). Don’t think. Don’t hesitate. Just stand up and start moving in the direction of the task. It’s a game-changer, believe me.
With some momentum on my side, these were the measures I took to ensure I would be delivering meaningful content that I knew thoroughly:
I defined my core intention
First, I needed to know my purpose, and it needed to inspire me.
I set out to write one sentence that encapsulated my core aim. It was to focus on my audience rather than myself (more on this in step nō.3) and it was going to begin with the word “To…” (e.g. “To share … with someone”, “To give someone …”). Here’s what I came up with:
“To share the insights that turned my life around”
This sentence gave me a powerful filter; material that served my intention made the cut, anything else was edited out.
I chose vulnerability over virtuosity
I wanted to be a human on stage, not a robotic expert. In order to fulfill this aim, I decided to start with a personal anecdote and to own the vulnerable parts of my story. It felt frightening to begin in this way rather than with a formal introduction, which I took as a good sign.
These were the three questions I wanted to answer within the first minute of talking:
- Who am I? (Who is the audience hearing from?)
- What are the relevant challenges that I’ve been faced with? (What’s my story?)
- How have those things brought about change for me? (What can the audience learn here?)
I considered my audience
I was speaking at the Festival of Doers, which is run by a company called Driven Woman. Now, I’m fairly sure I sit in that category myself, so writing a relevant speech posed little challenge. Still, I made sure that my talk included anecdotes, examples, and slides that other “driven women” would relate to.
As an aside, I also made sure that my visual content was as polished as my script. Fewer slides with greater impact is a good rule of thumb.
I learned my script verbatim
I must have recited my speech about twenty times before the day. I knew that I wouldn’t stick to it word-for-word, but I wanted to know that the full talk was there should I need it.
N.B. This was easier than I expected (I learned it in a week). A clever trick is to read through your presentation before you sleep. Studies have shown that our rate of learning can be significantly improved if we revise before climbing into bed for the night.
I practiced on my feet
After the first few read-throughs, I stood to practice my talk so I could program a physical blueprint into the mind-body system. This helped me to learn changes in stance, pace, and volume, as well as pauses, gestures, and facial expressions.
I staged a dress rehearsal with my most critical friends
My friends don’t beat around the bush. If there were holes in my talk, they’d let me know.
Step 2: I rewrote a key memory
Did you fall over in the nativity play at six-years-old? Did you once perform a dance routine for your parents only to be told that it was a bit rubbish? If you have memories that connect performance with failure or humiliation (and most of us do), then these could trigger some uncomfortable reactions when you think about getting on stage. Fortunately, there’s something that you can do about it.
It took me until two weeks before my talk to consider my own “sensitizing events”. The moment I did, my mind was awash with associations.
One memory stood out. I was about seven, performing in a primary school production of Cinderella (roll out the red carpet), and I completely forgot to say my one and only line. There was an excruciating silence while everyone waited. I waited too. I even looked around to see who had made the error. Then, with a horrible sinking feeling, I realized that it was my moment… my mistake. Argh! I was too embarrassed to pipe up so I stayed shtum and let the play continue without me.
That this memory sprang to mind when I considered the prospect of public speaking was an important bit of information. It meant that there was a good chance my unconscious was anticipating something similar for my upcoming talk. No wonder I was nervous.
Memories function like stories that, when triggered, play out automatically in our unconscious awareness. Their purpose is to provoke what the mind believes to be an appropriate reaction (in this case, fear). The good news is that these stories are not set in stone; they evolve and change as we grow (more on the plasticity of memory here). What this means is that if a past event causes an unhelpful reaction, we can edit its narrative to send a better message.
To do this with my Cinderella memory, I imagined going back to that day and speaking compassionately with my younger self. I explained that it was OK to make mistakes and that no one was angry. Then, I encouraged her to say her line even though she was late (which took a little doing). When she finally spoke, I imagined her literally glowing: I saw beams of golden light flooding out of her body and into the crowd of parents (including my own), who were all very grateful to receive it.
This version of the story felt like a far better fit with my adult perspective on what it means to perform. To help my mind store it over the old memory, I returned to the imagery repeatedly. Visualizing that light put my mind at ease. It reminded me that speaking is more about sharing something of value than the pressure of being the “star of the show”. This brings me to the next step.
Step 3: I framed performance as an act of gift-giving
It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that we need to see ourselves giving the talk of a lifetime when we visualize a public speaking event. In reality, imagining “all eyes on us” is more likely to exacerbate our anxiety than alleviate it.
I often tell my clients something like this:
Whether you’re going be telling a story, performing some art or educating your audience, know that you are giving a gift. When was the last time you gave a really meaningful birthday present to a friend or family member? When you anticipated the act of handing it over and watching them tear off the wrapping paper, did you think about how you’d look in that moment? I doubt it. Your mental rehearsal should be much the same.
To remind myself that I was giving a gift, I used the visual metaphor from my memory reframe (I imagined the audience absorbing that golden light). You can do it in a more literal way if you like: rather than seeing yourself “nailing it”, imagine the audience absorbing the information that you’re sharing. See them nodding and emoting as they make their own connections. If you’re relaying a sad story, visualize them welling up. If you’re going to crack some jokes, see them laughing as they enjoy the humor… as they enjoy the gift. Put simply, the key is to remember that your performance is not actually all about you. And that’s a good thing.
Step 4: I had self-soothing tools to hand
Even after I had put all the above into place, about ten minutes before I got on stage, I did feel my heart starting to race. I knew this would happen because it’s normal (and totally OK). However, I made sure that I had ways to temper the nerves if they got too distracting.
I used a subtle version of EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) as I waited to speak. For approximately five minutes, on and off, I gently tapped on some key pressure points on my fingers. Honestly, I can’t give you a scientific explanation of why this works, but it did the trick. I tapped my fingers at the same time as visualizing the golden light, and as I did my heartbeat slowed down quite dramatically. Much better.
Breathing and body language
When we go into “fight or flight”, we automatically restrict our breathing to the upper chest and make ourselves physically small. These things add fuel to the anxiety fire by sending a message to the mind that we’re in danger.
Conversely, open body language and comfortable breathing teach the unconscious that we’re safe. (You can read more about this in my article on body language).
With this in mind, I kept tabs on my physiology before getting on stage. Whenever I noticed myself closing up, I countered the negative signal by lifting my chin, opening my shoulders and breathing slowly and deeply into my belly and back (rather than my chest).
Step 5: I focused on the connection from the outset
The first few moments were going to be key, and I wanted to set the tone in a way that would both inspire trust from the audience and boost my confidence. Here’s how:
I smiled with my teeth
A wide smile is engaging and inviting (and like open body language, it tells the mind that we’re OK).
N.B. This might feel forced when you’re nervous, but the audience won’t know that.
I started with a pause
I wanted to wait until I’d felt a connection with at least one audience-member before I said a word, so I paused to make eye contact as soon as I got on stage.
I grounded myself
During that first moment (and then again a couple of times later) I directed my awareness down into my feet to sense their connection with the floor. This helped me to feel grounded, stable, and at home.
I started slow
Speaking slowly grabs the attention of the audience. It helps them to fully process the words spoken and to make an emotional connection. Knowing that I naturally speak pretty quickly, I rehearsed the first few minutes of my talk at the (almost uncomfortably slow) pace that I wanted to use.
In fact, I rehearsed all of this. Regardless of how awkward it felt, I practiced walking into my front room as if there was an audience there, pausing, smiling, grounding myself, visualizing my “gift-giving” light metaphor, and then speaking the first few lines slowly. (Yes, I am aware of how silly this all sounds).
Step 6: I gave myself an enthusiasm pass
No one comes to a talk hoping to see a lifeless person speaking about a subject so boring that even they can’t muster an ounce of excitement. However, many of us are tempted to downplay our enthusiasm because we’ve been conditioned to confuse it with naïvety or foolishness. Do you remember how the cool kids at school just didn’t give a crap about anything? Well, they have a lot to answer for.
It’s a vulnerable thing to share your passion, so it takes little guts. But it’s worth it. I made a point of reminding myself of how I felt when I first heard the information that I was presenting. Then, I gave myself permission to let that passion ooze out of me while I spoke.
This final point is what it’s all about. I wrote this article because I believe that anyone who chooses to stand on stage and speak from the heart will be able to relish those moments when their audience leans in to receive their gift. I had no idea before that day that I could enjoy public speaking as much as I did. But… my enjoyment wasn’t the retrospective type: the kind you get when you do something like a bungee jump, feel petrified throughout the entire thing, and then say, “That was awesome!” only after you’re untied and standing on solid ground.
What I experienced on stage was a present-moment, connected, and purposeful kind of joy. Speaking that day was life-affirming, and it could be for you too. So, if you’re reading this article because you have a talk on the horizon, then stop making unnecessary cups of tea and pick one of these pointers to get started on right away.
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