Advice on Overcoming Stage Fright
Across your career you would’ve been asked to pull a report or a deck together and in some cases, then been asked to fill in for your senior manager to present the report, could be to a client, your peers or senior board members. You feel confident in what you have put together, all the numbers, data and reports stack up so it should be an easy 10-30 minutes of talking through the deck.
Now ask yourself, were you nervous at all? Even for the 5 seconds before you stood up at the start? If you’ve answered yes – then you are human! The fight or flight mode has kicked in, which is in us all and you chose to fight and present/talk through the slides.
I have been in digital for over 15 years, worked across a number of industries and brands and I still get that little kick of adrenaline before doing presenting. A few years ago I was invited to present at SES (Search Engine Strategies) in London in the main hall to around 400 people, it was the first time I “big” did a talk in-front of the industry and luckily I had Lee Odden beside me who was cool as a cucumber – I on the other hand was terrified.
I had gone over and over my presentation, so I knew it inside and out, but couldn’t look at it in the morning, couldn’t eat, think or talk to anyone – the fight or flight had me big time that morning, and I was leaning more to the flight and run for the hills and hide.
I wasn’t alone – some people make public speaking look really easy, they “own” the stage, the room and have people sitting in the palm of their hands eagerly waiting their next slide, or titbit to add to a tweet. This post will give some tips from those who we may have all seen at conferences on what to do to stay calm and if they encounter stage fright in any of its guises.
Quick introduction to those who’ve offered advice:
Richard Ingram @richardjingram – Content Strategist and Information Designer at ingserv. Having heard Richard talk at different conferences over the last few years, he seems to have a easy way to discuss and deliver complex ideas and channels with simplicity.
Lee Odden @leeodden – CEO of TopRank Marketing. Lee is a busy man, presenting all over the globe, always full of enthusiasm, great personality and thought leader on many subjects. Seems to ooze calmness when on stage, no matter how big or small it is, the audience are always learning from his talks.
Shelli Walsh @shelliwalsh – Director of ShellShock, delivering Content Strategy and Creative Content Production. She has an uber creative mind, which as you know can be hard to translate to presentations, but Shelli conveys and stimulates her audience through her talks.
Dave Chaffey @DaveChaffey – An editor for Smart Insights, a published author on varied Marketing Practices. Dave has great characteristics during his talks, from joining up the dots and making his audience nod (a lot).
Dixon Jones @Dixon_Jones – Marketing Director at Majestic. Presented across the globe to varied audiences, always on the ball, both technical and enthusiastic and when I see him present, I scribble a ton of notes.
I asked the panel 5 questions on advice around presenting and public speaking – read on and see what that say and if it could help you.
Do you ever get nervous before performing/speaking/presenting (is it a good or bad thing)?
Richard – Yes, pretty much every time. The severity of my nerves depends on whether I’ve given a similar talk before. Usually my heart rate increases and my mouth dries up. That said, I would be worried if I wasn’t a little nervous. I like to think it helps me to prepare correctly and avoid any complacency. The fear of failing in such a public way will always motivate me to put in those crucial hours of practice.
Lee – At first, I was nearly paralyzed and spoke gibberish. Now, not so much. It’s more a feeling of anticipation, which is a good thing.
A little adrenaline improves your senses and adds energy to a presentation. Interestingly, I do get a little nervous from time to time on radio, podcast and webinars where I cannot see the audience.
Shelli – I am very passionate about what I do and can talk for hours about my work, creativity, inspiration and ideas – until people tell me to shut up or fall asleep. But, put me on a stage and I feel like a specimen in a lab and suffer from extreme stage fright. Sadly this has resulted in me turning down many more speaking events and opportunities than I have accepted. Oddly, I have no fear of speaking in front of people at all, put me at a networking event and I can chat to anyone (a skill learned working behind many bars). Being an introvert I am simply not comfortable being at the centre of attention of a crowd.
Dave – Yes, who doesn’t?! The strange thing is presenting a webinar to 10 people you can’t see is far more stressful than 100+ people you can. I enjoy interacting with an audience and seeing reactions – this is trickier online.
Dixon – It’s weird these days… Sometimes I am really nervous and other times I am worryingly calm. What I do know is that I perform much better when I have some nerves. I prepare better and deliver more insight I think.
Do you prefer smaller audiences to speak/present in front of or doesn’t it matter?
Richard – I think they are two different challenges. Addressing a smaller audience will usually mean you’ll continually make direct eye contact with the same audience members. This level of intimacy can make it more stressful.
I think once you’re addressing a group larger than 20 it doesn’t really make that much difference. I prefer larger audiences purely because you are likely to resonate with more people.
Lee – It depends on the kind of presentation. If I’m giving a thought leader, inspirational or keynote type of presentation, then the larger the better – 500 or 5,000.
If I’m giving a workshop, then smaller is better. I once arrived to do a social media marketing workshop in New Zealand where I expected 20-25 students. There were nearly 200! That size of a group required me to do the exercises and group sharing a bit different than normal 🙂
Shelli – Last year at Brighton I requested to speak on a smaller stage (as I thought it would be easier) and I spoke in The Court House. Surprisingly, I couldn’t have been more wrong. This is a small venue but very claustrophobic. Having an audience at literally arms length with 250 pairs of eyes so close I could almost see their eye lashes blinking is incredibly unnerving.
This year speaking on the main stage was, even more surprisingly, much easier because you can’t see anyone because of the lights. There is a physical distance and this barrier is a huge comfort. I thought a big stage would be much worse but I now realise, for me, an intimate location is more difficult. Although it does go through your mind that if you fail on a big stage potentially a thousand people will watch you make an ass of yourself – quite sobering.
Dave – I like training workshop formats where you can work with a smaller group and respond more directly to their questions and challenges. That said, I do find it a buzz speaking at a larger event. I’ll never be Matt Bellamy, but that’s maybe the closest I will get!
Dixon – I get more scared with smaller audiences than large ones. Large ones are a nameless crowd (in my head) and I simply have to deliver my prepared speech, but the smaller the group, the more specialised the topic, usually. That means more questions and harder questions. It is harder to create respect in a small group I think. Worse, there is a very real chance that those people know more than I do, so the whole process becomes more 2 way and thus more complex.
What was your worst case of stage fright? (where was it, how many people and how long ago)
Richard – Probably my first big conference talk was the toughest. I’d sat in the audience earlier in the day and watched the first few speakers (who were all industry stalwarts) give these amazing talks.
The stage was set up in such a way that I had no notes to call upon, so I’d memorised my talk in its entirety over the course of two weeks. I felt very raw, tense and completely out of my depth. My legs were wobbling like mad. To make matters worse I experienced a technical hitch right at the beginning with my slides, which forced my to ad-lib for two minutes (but felt like hours). In the end I gave my talk; relieved that it was over.
Afterwards I received plenty of welcome praise, but what the audience had noticed was that I had a tendency to walk around the stage too much. I had feedback like “It was like watching a tennis match” and “you’ve worn out the carpet”. The camera operator had their work cut out trying to chase me around the stage. The footage of this talk still exists out there on the web. I learned a lot about my technique by watching it back, painful as it was.
Lee – This wasn’t really a presentation exactly, but when I jumped out of an airplane with the U.S. Army Golden Knights as part of a conference PR stunt, I got seasick on the way down and cameras were rolling the whole time. I was not myself and couldn’t speak as the camera guy ran up to me to do an interview seconds after I landed. That was a few years ago 🙂
Shelli – I was very nervous before Brighton (2014). I didn’t sleep the night before, but I was calm and it wasn’t until 10 minutes before I was due to speak that I experienced extreme stage fright. I literally thought I couldn’t speak or move. I thought I was going to be sick and my legs were shaking and wouldn’t move. I felt completely out of body. It took every effort to override my primeval brain that was screaming at me to run away and find a ‘happy place’. The entire 20 minutes felt like forever and I just wanted it to be over. It was quite traumatic.
I did say I would never speak again but found myself facing the same situation at Brighton again (2015) – this time main stage! I went through nerves again but it wasn’t as dramatic as the previous experience. As I stepped out onto the stage it was on the same level of fear as throwing myself off a cliff but I managed to keep control and coherence of what I was doing. I even enjoyed it in a small way. My hand was shaking like a leaf as I began and I struggled to turn the pages of my notes which was amusing in a sadistic way.
It is very common for even seasoned actors to still be experiencing stage fright well into their careers, Kate Bush gave up performing live, Henry Fonda used to throw up before he went on stage even in his 70s and Meg Ryan froze in fear at a high school valedictorian speech. I keep telling myself this to get me through.
Dave – I still get this with webinars as I mentioned, but when I used to train a lot I used to get nightmares about arriving late or being at the workshop but the tech was broken so I couldn’t start even though everyone was ‘expectant’.
Dixon – I was sick 30 seconds before a PubCon presentation. Again, I felt the audience knew more than me! It still happens occasionally.
What do you do to overcome your nerves?
Richard – To control it I think back to past occasions and try to draw on the positive aspects of those experiences. I try to regulate my breathing.
More recently I’ve taken to meeting and speaking with some of the people in the front row. I ask them what brought them there, what they do, and what they are looking to get out of my talk. I find this takes the edge off my nerves and brings me back to a condition which means I’m not completely knotted up when I start to speak
Lee – Know the material and have stories to tell. There is no substitute for being knowledgeable, practiced and passionate about your topic to overcome nerves and deliver an amazing presentation experience for your audience.
Shelli – Overcoming fear and nerves is a personal thing and is different for everyone. I have read much about fear (as I have a fear of flying) and the only way to deal with it is to confront and go against everything your brain is telling you to do. If you hide from fear you live half a life and that is not acceptable for me.
You simply have to find your inner grit. There is no other way.
Whatever you do, do NOT drink alcohol as a means to overcome nerves. Slurring your words and stumbling around the stage obviously drunk will do much more damage to your reputation than looking like a rabbit in headlights
Dave – I don’t really get nervous now, but still usually print a deck to see how I can personalise the start of the talk to the audience/start with a bang. A lot of UK presenters start with an apology which I always think is a shame.
Dixon – Preparation counts for a lot! Starting with a joke that works and talking in front of a mirror. After that, I do breathing exercises before I start. I talk too quickly anyway on stage, but when I am nervous it gets worse!
What top tips would you have for someone who is about to speak/present for the first time?
Richard – Practice. Again and again. Familiarity with your subject, your talk and your notes only breeds confidence. For me, the worst part of a talk is the opening monologue, so I would also suggest preparing more notes and prompts for this part of your talk. This is when your head is most likely going to be in a state of flux because you’re up there; you’re speaking and “oh my, there’s all these people hanging on my words”. Most of my notes are at the start.
Once you’ve settled down and in the zone you’ll need fewer prompts and notes. I also like to start with a personal story that’s loosely related to your subject. You own this story. Nobody else can tell it like you can because you lived it. You know all the details. I find it the most comfortable way to begin a talk.
The only other piece of advice is don’t be knocked off course by watching your contemporaries speaking at the same event before you’ve had your turn. There is no ‘right’ way to present and everybody brings a little bit of themselves to proceedings. Stick to what you’ve prepared. The time for learning those lessons is afterwards.
Lee – First, try to find out about the audience and what their expectations might be. How is your presentation being promoted? What promises are being made about your presentation? Make sure you deliver on those promises.
As for the presentation itself, start with a story. Before planning out the tips, tactics and how to’s, think of a central story you can tell. In fact, if you have multiple stories, even better. Stories are more fun to present and infinitely more interesting to the audience.
Once you have that main story, accentuate and support it with the challenge your expertise can solve, recommended solution and actions the audience can take.
With any kind of content, always be able to answer:
- What is it? (the problem relative to the audience)
- How does your content solve a problem for the audience?
- What should the audience do next?
Find out what your audience cares about, tell them stories and make sure you effectively describe the issue, a solution and what the audience should do next. That’s a great formula for an effective presentation for first timers and old timers alike.
Shelli – If you want to speak I would say it is essential to:
- Get your content right, if you have a strong, clear message you cant fail
- Join Toastmasters, I cannot recommend enough
- Practice, practice, practice
I also posted one of my previous newsletters as a blog, which you can read here for a few more speaking tips: http://www.creativity101.com/how-to-speak-when-under-pressure/
Dave – Well, have a simple structure you explain up front, show why your audience why they should listen and try to start with a bang – something unexpected at the start which will hopefully show you’re worth listening to. Think of a good way to close – I still get that wrong!
Dixon – Apart from the ideas above, the pitch is paramount. Do not think you can “just get asked”. Most conferences ask you to submit pitches. Use the forms and avoid typos. Then, never never oversell your product or your own skill set on stage.
Lastly, time your talk. The other speakers really get annoyed if you overreach on time. I use 1 slide per minute, but your style may vary.
Plenty of advice to use in the future
Personally the best advice given to me is echoed from above (thanks to Bas). I was told to focus on a few select people in the front rows, making eye contact and engaging with them, as though they were the only ones in the room for the first few minutes. It allowed me to slow down (its not a race and as Dixon says, you tend to talk quickly when nervous), get into my stride, regulate the breathing and most importantly convey the presentation – you’ve done all that hard work on the deck, so present and talk through it because you “own” it.
If you have any advice on what you do before presenting, please feel free to leave a comment below – afterall we are only human and what works for one may be different for another. And just remember, it is human to feel the fight or flight feeling, its in our make up!
A last piece of advice
Our founder, Bas van den Beld, is an experienced speaker who travels the world and has seen many audiences. He gives a last piece of advice:
“Be sure you understand the different types of audiences you are talking to, or you may get caught by surprise. For example in the Nordic countries you will get much less interaction from the crowd than for example in the UK or US. Don’t take that personal, it’s just how the culture is. But make sure you are ready for this.”
Bas is currently developing a training course for public speaking. Within the next few months this will be launched. We are looking forward to that course!