There I was, performing onstage with Alec Baldwin at the American Airlines theatre in the most competitive and intimidating city in the world, New York, NY. Nearly one-thousand audience members were eagerly staring at us, waiting to be entertained. I had waited my entire career for this incredible moment, and though I was thrilled beyond belief at this amazing opportunity, I was also scared out of my friggin’ mind. What if I screw up and ruin everything for Mr. Baldwin and the rest of the cast? What if I flub a line and 740 people start laughing at me? What if I’m so awful, the theatre company decides to never hire me again?
I’d be willing to bet, since you clicked on this article, these types of thoughts run through your head when you’re required to speak in front of people too. No matter whether you’ve been asked to give a big presentation, prepare a pitch deck, or simply have a one-on-one with your boss, this anxiety has the unwelcome tendency to rear its ugly head.
Trust me, you are not alone. The fear of public speaking affects millions of people, in all kinds of circumstances. In fact, not only have you and I experienced this, but so has business magnate Warren Buffet, singer Adele, and actor Bill Hader. These are individuals whose actual job it is to be the center of attention in front of enormous audiences with high expectations. And yet, they, and many others like them, have still had to cope with stage fright.
The list of potential remedies for this problem is extensive. I’ve had clients tell me they’ve turned to therapists, Xanax, and even whiskey to help them overcome their fear of speaking in front of people. And though therapy may help you decipher the root of the problem, there’s still no guarantee you’ll cure yourself of the issue. And I certainly don’t recommend you use drugs to mask the problem.
I’m going to disclose something to you before you read any further. This article is not about overcoming performance anxiety. Not directly, at least. That’s because there is no silver bullet or magic pill that cures it. If someone tells you there is, you should probably run— unless they’re prescribing you drugs, they’re misleading you.
This article is, instead, designed to show you how overlooking a few essential foundational elements of communication could possibly lead to it.
Think of it this way: no matter how beautiful your house may be, if you have a weak foundation, the structure will eventually crumble. However, if you put the effort into building a solid infrastructure, that same house will be stable and secure. It will stand strong, no matter the formidable conditions.
Likewise, if you pay attention to the three fundamental elements I’m about to offer you, I can almost guarantee you’ll feel more secure about your ability to communicate skillfully. And with this sense of security, your fear will naturally begin to dissipate. The unease and apprehension will have less real estate to occupy. It will get boxed out by your composure and self-assurance.
In all honesty, your stage fright may never go away entirely. However, if you devote your energy towards laying some essential groundwork, you’ll spend more time feeling excited about your ability to communicate with skill and confidence. And, ultimately, you’ll squander less time noticing how sweaty your palms are getting.
1. BREATHE, DAMMIT!
If I had a dollar for every time someone underestimated the importance of proper breathing, I’d be an insanely wealthy man. It’s a miracle cure when it comes to stress, and yet we still take it for granted. The mindfulness industry, which includes conscious breathing, is now a $1B line of business for a reason. Athletes, musicians, actors, and executives are all now understanding the importance of healthy breathing habits. Even the Navy SEALs (talk about a stressful job) spend copious amounts of time during their training working on, you guessed it, breathing. It’s a crucial part of our existence. But, because we can do it both voluntarily and involuntarily, people often ignore the importance of practicing it.
Breathing is one of the most basic functions of the human body. If done correctly, it can help you sleep better, digest food more efficiently, improve your body’s immune response, release powerful endorphins, and reduce stress levels. Every system in your body relies on oxygen. Breathing not only calms you down, it also gives you a greater sense of mental clarity. When you’re anxious, your heart rate speeds up and your body goes into fight or flight. While your nervous system is in this state, the last thing it’s trying to do is help you speak with clarity. It’s simply looking for a way to get the hell out of the situation.
Breathing is often the very first thing I work on with my clients. Doing it properly (according to very hard, scientific facts) will calm your nerves. My clients who embrace this knowledge from the start are invariably the ones who make the quickest progress with their jitters. It’s become an incredible prognosticator for me—better breathing equals a more relaxed mind and a better performance.
Download a breathing app and practice it every day. Or, better yet, take a yoga or meditation class. Then, when you start to feel your body tense up while speaking in front of people, you’ll be able to take a moment to remind yourself to breathe deeply and properly. Your body will know what to do next.
Just understand that breathing properly is not something that happens overnight. You’ll want to practice mindful breathing well before you’re in front of an audience so it’s easier to access this technique under pressure. If you don’t practice slowing your breath down when the pressure is at bay, what do you think is going to happen when the stress dial gets cranked up a few notches?
2. STOP BEING SO SELF-CENTERED!
Does this sound harsh? Well, here’s the cold, hard truth: the reason you’re so nervous is because you’re worried about how you look. You’re concerned about whether or not your listeners will think you’re smart and well-informed. You’re focused on your delivery and your reputation. It’s all about you, you, you.
Guess what? Your pitch, presentation, or meeting isn’t about you. It’s about your listeners and what you want to offer them. The more you focus on that, the less room there is to be preoccupied with yourself and your anxiety.
Before your speaking engagement, you need to figure out exactly who your audience is and what they need to know, and then point your message preparation in that direction with laser focus. Write it down and then keep questioning the potential impact of it. Share it with friends and colleagues and then tweak and sharpen it until there’s no question in your mind it is bulletproof.
A strong objective gives you a goal to passionately strive towards, and will be your driving force as you communicate. It will bring your message to life and offers you clear direction and something to set your mind on, other than your nerves.
Once you’re in front of your audience, pursue this objective with relentless zeal. Don’t ever take your eyes off of it. When the nerves kick in, direct your attention back to your objective. Be stubborn and strong-willed about it, and keep aiming for that goal line. Objectives are the driving forces behind everything we do as human beings. They should also be the primary impetus behind your message.
Without this crystal clear intention, it’s only natural your mind will begin to wander into areas of self-consciousness. When you don’t give your mind something powerful to focus on, it will desperately search for something else to attach itself to. And, by nature, the human mind looks for problems when it doesn’t have anything else to do. It’s an instinct that’s hardwired in us.
The added benefit of a rock-solid message is how truly effective your communication skills will be as a result. It’s remarkable how much more powerful a pitch, presentation, or even a conversation is with an intentional message than without one. Setting a robust intention focuses energy, attention, and action. It stimulates the need to act and leads naturally into moving from aimless meandering to illuminating discovery. And, ultimately, a strong objective/intention that is pursued with passion and vigor will lead to less sweaty brows and clammy palms.
3. EXPECT THE BEST BUT PREPARE FOR THE WORST
Mistakes are going to happen. You’re going to say the wrong words. The PowerPoint display is going to be glitchy. Someone is going to have a coughing fit in the middle of the most important part of your delivery. Make sure you’re ready for anything that might be thrown in your path. This way, when you do encounter it, you’ll be able to handle it with aplomb.
One of the great advantages of preparing for the worst is, on the chance something challenging does come up, it won’t feel so damn fatalistic. No doubt, to reach your aspirations you need an unflinchingly positive attitude and a supreme belief that you can, and will, be great. However, another essential mindset is being prepared for obstacles that could potentially pop up on your quest for success.
This may seem like a cynical point of view. After all, aren’t we supposed to have an undying belief that we can achieve whatever we want, no matter what’s in our way? The book The Secret will tell you that if you envision a positive outcome, it will undoubtedly happen. Well, if that were entirely true, we’d have a world chock-full of very wealthy, successful, and infallible people.
It’s equally important to realize that we will, undoubtedly, come across challenges in everything we do. This includes communicating with others. With a concrete plan in place, though, these hiccups can be overcome with much more ease and effortlessness. Prepping for the worst-case scenario will make you feel grounded and prepared, and minimizes the fears and anxieties that can naturally surface when we’re speaking in front of an intimidating audience.
So, prepare for questions that might otherwise throw you off. Have a colleague or friend ask you unscripted inquiries so that, on the day, you’re ready to handle them. Wing your delivery without the PowerPoint, just in case you lose connectivity during your pitch. Have your spouse sigh, squirm, and even give you surly looks to mimic that potential grump who shows up at the meeting. Think about the worst that could possibly happen, and then think about your most adept reaction. Doing this has the effect of minimizing fear, which can increase your composure come performance time.
Introduce these three key points of focus into your work and I’d be willing to bet the bank your fear of public speaking will begin to wane.
I know this to be true because I’ve experienced it firsthand. While I was nervously standing on that stage with Mr. Baldwin, I stopped myself and went through a quick checklist in my head. Was I breathing calmly and deeply? Yes. Did I have a crystal-clear objective? You betcha. Did I have a positive mindset that was also ready for potential mistakes? Absolutely. Once I felt secure in these realizations, my heart rate slowed down and my mind stopped racing. I began to feel excitement and peace of mind. I was about to perform in front of a huge theatre full of people, and I was poised and ready to go.