Secrets to success
There's plenty you can do to lay a stress-free foundation for your speech, presentation or performance. The more things you can calmly take care of in advance, the less you'll be worrying about at the last minute.
¢ Get enough sleep. Assess how much sleep you need to be in peak form, and then make sure you get it. "All of us can think back to when we got our best performance," says psychologist Linda Hamilton, of Manhattan, N.Y. "That's what you want to duplicate."
¢ Get there early. Take into account traffic and anything else that could go wrong. Then add 10 minutes. The worst thing to do is arrive at your location without time to set up or settle down.
¢ Know your material and know your audience. If you've done your homework, regardless of the nature of your performance, you won't be worried about being "found out." "If you know the material, you're not so afraid of being judged on it," says Carol Goldberg, a New York-based clinical psychologist and host of the TV program "Dr. Carol Goldberg and Company." It's also good to meet a few members of the audience beforehand so you have familiar faces to address.
¢ Do something that relaxes you before you're on the hot seat. Listen to music right before you go onstage. Or play golf earlier in the day. Watch clips of Bob Ross painting on YouTube the night before. Whatever works.
¢ Hydrate yourself, since stress makes your mouth dry. But not with coffee (makes you jittery), alcohol (makes you sloppy), soda (makes you burp) or milk (makes you phlegmy). Have water at the lectern if your mouth tends to dry up quickly.
You're about to be introduced. The microphone beckons you like an overzealous dance partner. Here are a few things to consider before you tango with a crowd:
¢ Breathe deeply. Slow yourself down. Remind yourself: You're not in danger. "Physically, the one thing I learned is to breathe, because when we're nervous we naturally start taking more shallow breaths," says Todd McDermott, a local TV news anchor in Washington. "It sounds so simple, but if you remember to do it, not only does it keep oxygen flowing to your brain, it keeps you from rushing."
¢ Know the first two lines of what you're going to say, says Peter Pober, coach of the George Mason University forensics team in Fairfax, Va. "You can absolutely nearly eliminate stage fright if you memorize the first two lines you want to come out of your mouth," he says. "Know the exact wording, and you'll start off with confidence." But remember: Memorizing a whole speech word for word is a bad thing.
¢ Direct your first line to the center of the crowd, Pober adds. That way, you'll be hooking the most people right off the bat.
¢ Control the start and the finish yourself. The words don't have to rush out right when you reach the microphone, and you don't have to rush off as soon as you're done. "Before you start, take a deep breath and make sure the audience is with you," Pober says. "Then finish the last word, take a beat or count to three, and leave them with an impact."
¢ View the audience as friends and allies, not an army of skeptics or dummies. "Some people say, 'Look at the audience and diminish them or demean them or picture them naked,' and I think that's really ridiculous," Goldberg says. "Visualize them as good friends who are going to enjoy this."
The panic is starting to snowball. You can feel your face flush. Try these things:
¢ Just pause. Take a minute to collect yourself instead of trying to stumble out of the awkwardness. Chances are the pause won't even register with the audience as a mistake ...
¢ ... So just let the mistakes go. "The audience doesn't expect you to be perfect, so don't put that kind of pressure on yourself," says Washington stand-up comic Matt Kazam, who recommends tossing up a self-deprecating comment to ease the tension.
¢ Refer to a visual command. Rubin has his students paste a sticky note by their speech or on the lectern that they can refer to as a prompt to distract themselves from, well, themselves. The note can say "slow" or "calm," or whatever word will re-center their attention.
They are three strapping men in mid-career - a salesman, a real estate broker and an officer in the military. All are at ease around a table in a casual setting, but put them behind a lectern or in front of a crowd, and their breathing quickens.
Their chests tighten.
Their voices start to tremor.
A quiet panic builds to a roar.
Stage fright is something that fells giants. These three men, tired of surrendering themselves to nerves, are sitting at a table in a basement in Alexandria, Va. They have enrolled in Stagefright Survival School.
"Does anyone know the secret to tightrope walking?" asks Burton Rubin, the school's director and a lawyer by trade.
"Don't look down," the broker says.
"Yes," Rubin says. "Now does anyone know the secret to overcoming stage fright?"
Then the salesman gives the correct answer: "Don't think about yourself."
"I read a thing that speaking in front of a crowd is actually considered the number one fear of the average person. Number two was death. Number two. That means if you're the average person, if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy."
- Jerry Seinfeld, "I'm Telling You for the Last Time" (1998)
Give or take a year, that's when you're first forced to read aloud in class. It can be the seminal experience of feeling judged by peers or anxious about your performance. It's the moment that can anchor a long struggle with stage fright.
Rubin, 61, remembers his moment vividly. He lost his lines while playing a narrator during a fifth-grade play. That one experience of panic and humiliation was enough to conjure a dread of public speaking that dogged him through law school. He graduated and went into legal publishing rather than face a law firm or courtroom setting.
"I had to duck into areas in which I would be safe from speaking," says Rubin, of Burke, Va. "Eventually, I went to see a psychiatrist, psychologists and tried hypnosis, and nothing worked."
He met David Charney, reputed in the Washington area for his work with phobias, and the two dissected the problem with an intensity that paid off for Rubin. Since then, the pair has collaborated on creating a metaphorical tool kit for dismantling stage fright. In the process, they've worked with members of Congress, the diplomatic community and on-air talent.
"Some clients were so highly placed in their fields that they took our breath away," says Charney, 63, of Alexandria. "Others couldn't even be coaxed down the stairs and into the classroom."
They say they've unwound this problem - Rubin from the inside, Charney from the outside - and perfected a model for treatment in the form of the Stagefright Survival School, which launched last month and is a synthesis of two decades of work.
The school provides a 10-week course that begins with understanding the physiological process that accelerates stage fright, Rubin says. Onstage panic is ignited by catecholamines, a family of chemicals that includes adrenaline. When we're in trouble, the body juices us full of them.
"As human beings, we cannot differentiate between physical danger and what we would call social danger," Rubin says. "So if you have a thought that you will hurt yourself some way socially, your body only has the one set of emergency responses to go to."
So the body thinks it's being hunted by a panther instead of standing safely on a podium. The heart races to prepare for a chase that doesn't come. The physical manifestations of this stress confirm that you're embarrassing yourself - and therefore in social danger - so the body makes more catecholamines.
It's a whirlpool of anxiety that spins faster and faster and feeds off itself. You can't outrun it, Rubin says. You simply must face it. The key to blocking stage fright is not to think about yourself, not to trigger those pesky chemicals. Rubin and Charney have developed distraction techniques (such as maintaining a deliberately slow cadence) for people to displace thoughts about screwing up. Charney sometimes prescribes medications such as Xanax (to ease anxiety) and beta blockers (to still the physical jitters) as "training wheels" for people with extreme stage fright.
"We also use grounding techniques," Charney says. "You grab hold of the podium and with your hands squeeze as hard as you can. You move the locus of attention away from your bad thoughts to your hand. Pain in your hand is better than craziness in your mind at the moment."
"He is always waiting outside the door, any door, waiting to get you. You either battle or walk away. ... Once you have experienced stage fright, you are always aware that it could be just around the corner waiting for you, just waiting for you to get cocky and confident."
- Laurence Olivier, "On Acting" (1986)
Businessmen and women pass on promotions to avoid the responsibility of leading meetings. Teachers who are czars of their classrooms are rendered inert in front of a PTA crowd. One slip on the stage can dismantle the confidence of seasoned entertainers. The moral of the story: Stage fright affects a mammoth swath of people, regardless of occupation or experience. As the most common social phobia, stage fright is so pervasive that there is no way to accurately quantify it, Charney says.
"I think we're all performing in today's global marketplace," says Linda Hamilton, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan, N.Y., who treats stage fright and anxiety in performers, including those with the New York City Ballet. "It's more competitive than it's ever been. People don't have any guarantees. So you've got occupational pressures, then you have the individual's personality."
In her last semester of college, Bahar Sadjadi, 32, of Arlington, Va., was so nervous she blanked when giving part of a group presentation. Convinced that the problem was permanent, she dodged public speaking situations - until two months ago, when she started attending a chapter of Toastmasters International, a network of more than 10,500 clubs for people to learn and practice speaking in front of a group.
"Usually, when we have one bad experience we try to avoid that for the rest of our life," says Sadjadi, now a director of business development for an IT services company. "I had this thing formed in my mind that I can't do it because I get nervous. With Toastmasters, you put yourself out there, and you have to do it. After a few times, it's not so bad."
During meetings, speeches are timed and evaluated by other members, and a speaker's "uhs" and "ums" are counted. This model works for many but is not for everyone, says Charles Boyd, 34, president of New Southwest Toastmasters Club in Washington. The trick with Toastmasters is to find a club that's supportive in its evaluations and makes you feel comfortable.
"It comes down to how people feel about themselves and if they want to take that leap," says Boyd, a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security. "I don't want to compare it to AA, but it is what it is. Everybody's been there."
After trying public speaking enterprises such as Dale Carnegie Training, Lee Harbin, of Sterling, Va., started worked with Charney and Rubin in the 1980s. She was in sales at the time and realized her career had "hit the ceiling" because of her stage fright.
"I learned to try to be excited about something rather than worried," says Harbin, 49, now director of marketing for a high-tech computer sales company. "You can kind of flip that switch that sort of changes the focus and changes the way your heart beats."
A combination of consultation and medication worked for Harbin, but she acknowledges that dealing with a fear of public speaking is an ongoing process. The fright can be assuaged only with patience, persistence and the abandonment of perfectionism (giving yourself permission to be a little nervous releases the tension that can snowball into panic, Rubin says).
"At the end of 10 weeks, the successful student is still unjelled Jell-O," Rubin says. "We've mixed up the ingredients, but it hasn't set yet. And the only way to do that is to practice."