I’ve never been skydiving, but I think I can imagine what it would be like that first time, there at 15,000 feet in those moments before the door opens and out you go. In a word, terrifying. There’s nothing between you and the ground except, well, nothing, and you’ve put your life in the hands of a parachute which, if it doesn’t open, then that’s it for you in this life.
So, yeah, terrifying. Some might also say exhilerating, but underneath the rush and the bravado, there is still fear. It is, after all, reasonable to be afraid of stepping out of an airplane and basically falling 15,000 feet through the air, hoping for a controlled landing but not able to know with certainty that’s how it’s going to turn out.
Life and death. Pretty scary.
Now let’s talk about stage fright, that pulse-accelerating, knee-knocking, sweat-producing phenomenon that, according to some estimates, affects 80% of people, some to the point of being petrified. Public speaking is scary, not because it’s life threatening, but because it’s reputation-threatening. Not wanting to look bad, sound stupid, trip or make a mistake in front of others is enough to bring us to the brink of hysteria. Some people would rather jump out of an airplane than give a speech.
Here’s how to test the proposal that risk to reputation is what stage fright is about. Let’s say for a moment that you live in an imaginary world where it is possible to guarantee — 100%! — that your next presentation would be flawless, engaging, informative and incredibly well-received by everyone in your audience. (I realize we don’t live in that world, but we’re pretending here.) If that were the case — that you’d be absolutely perfect on stage, and nothing whatsoever could or would go wrong — how afraid would you be of taking the stage? I bet not at all.
What we fear is what the audience might think, that they’ll think badly of us. We obsess over thoughts such as How will I come across? Cool or awkward? Will they think I’m smart? Dull? Charming? Will they respect me more afterwards, or less? Am I as good as my peer/predecessor/boss?
Let’s say you’re walking into a conference room, about to make a presentation to project team leads and managers about the status of work your team has been doing. Your news is a mixture of good and not-so-good. There are fifteen or twenty people in the conference room waiting for you, busy, overbooked people who have set aside this hour to listen to your update. You’ve got slides, you’ve got your laptop, and you’ve got a serious case of sweaty palms and nervous stomach.
Why? Because you’re worried about how you will be received. Of course we can never know with certainty what the others in the room are thinking, and we don’t have the ability to make them think well of us. Given how little control we have of what others think of us, it’s amazing how many cycles we spend worrying about it and trying to control it.
Public speaking puts the speaker’s reputation on the line, and that’s what’s behind the fear. It’s based on what others think, which is something you can’t control, even though it seems immeasurably important to try to control it. And what people think of you often has nothing to do with the news you’re delivering. A quiet, timid, terrible speaker delivering great news about the project makes a weak impression. A confident, engaging, wonderful speaker delivering terrible news makes a better impression (in part because there’s usually plenty of blame to go around when news is bad and the speaker knows he or she isn’t saddled with all of it).
So given that you can’t control what people think and yet you want to, maybe you want to take some steps to manage your fear of speaking in public. Here are three ideas you can put into practice right away.
- Use your logical right brain thinking to help you put stage fright in its place. Is public speaking life-threatening? If something goes wrong during your presentation, you’ll walk away in one piece. If something goes wrong after you jump out of the plane, you probably won’t. That’s a realistic way of thinking about danger, which means public speaking is not dangerous. Is it therefore reasonable to be consumed with fear? Are you a reasonable person?
- Tell your anxious, chattery inner voice to shut up. You know the inner voice I’m talking about, the one that keeps reminding you how daunting it is to speak in front of groups, telling you that you’re likely to lose your train of thought, stumble over words or stammer awkwardly through an entire answer. You’re good at imagining everything that can go wrong.
Instead, tell yourself you’ll do your best, and people will think what they will, regardless. Instead of angsting about perfection, tell yourself that mistakes are normal. You’ll try not to make them, but you may, and if you do, you’ll deal with them and move on. Instead of envisioning blunders, imagine things going well.
Sports coaches give this kind of advice all the time. Stand at the free-throw line and picture the ball going through the hoop. Then throw it. They don’t tell you to picture the ball bouncing off the rim. Picture the outcome you want, and you’re more likely to get there.
- Think less about yourself. Stage fright is a completely me-focused state of mind. You might even say it’s me-obsessed! How am I? What do they think of me? What if I screw up? A person with stage fright never gives a thought to how others in the room are doing.
Yet the more you think about yourself, the worse you’ll feel. So try thinking about the other people in the room, particularly how they are, what they may have on their minds, concerns they may have. Everyone you’ll be speaking to has problems (that have nothing to do with you!), maybe even urgent and difficult problems. You don’t have to know what their problems are to know they have some because problems are normal. (Ever met someone who didn’t have any problems? Of course not.) Therefore, even if you don’t know what may be troubling them, you can consider that they are troubled. You’re not the only one in the room with something pressing on your mind. A little compassion from you aimed in their direction will leave less room in your mind for self-obsession.
The mere act of thinking about how others are feeling will help you take the mental focus off yourself, and as soon as you do that, you’ll start to forget about your anxiety about your presentation or public speaking opportunity. Guaranteed.
You may have gotten the idea by now that addressing your stage fright means managing your thoughts. It’s not something many of us spend much time on. We just think, often reactively. But it’s worth contemplating the facts — public speaking isn’t actually dangerous, and fear of it is really just a powerful attachment to our own reputation — and shifting from reactive into proactive mental action. That means not only facing, but also anticipating, the fear we’d rather not have and taking these rational steps to mitigate it.
Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time.