Stage Fright

stage fright

I gave the presentation of my life last week.   Standing there, among a group of senior executives looking at me expectantly I felt invincible, like a Cy Young winning pitcher throwing a perfect game.   Actually, nah.   The only thing I wanted to throw was my breakfast all over the floor. I wanted to vomit, and this isn’t a rare occurrence. It happens every time, without fail.

You wouldn’t think of it to look at me.  At least, that’s what people tell me.   They say things like ‘but it’s so effortless for you’ or ‘it’s easy for you because you’re an extrovert.’  But this is an illusion.  One, I’m a textbook introvert.  And two, no matter  how often I present, no matter how good I am at it, no matter how well I perform… I feel like puking my guts out.

Every single time.

Fear is a major adversary for anyone who stands in front of a group of people ready to be judged.  Even that sentence makes me sweat.   The fear of judgement, of screwing up, of forgetting your ‘lines’, of looking nervous plays on  ‘repeat’ in your mind, takes form in your guts and stays there. It is the number one killer of presentations today. It’s no wonder that so many people list fear of public speaking as their primary dread… over spiders, snakes, and homicidal clowns.

But fear can also be your friend.

Let me tell you a story…

Years ago, during my days in the theatre, I was performing in a one-man show called Tintin Untold — a play that I wrote myself so had no excuse for not knowing the lines.   About mid-way through one of the performances, in front of a sold-out house, I lost my place in the script and froze.  Without a clue of what to say next.

Time stopped and panic set in. The only sound I could hear was the heavy thumping of my heart in my ears (and my inner voice screaming HOLY SHIT). My stomach simmered and gurgled and I could feel whatever I ate that morning slowly working its way into my throat. I was sure I was about to do something far worse than forget my lines on stage. I was about to puke on the audience.

Now, every time I’m about to start a presentation, I remember that moment. I see myself standing on the edge of failure about to vomit on innocent spectators. But instead of letting it get the better of me, I use it. Because I remember what happened next.

While I did throw up a little in my mouth, the release actually gave me the chance to take a breath, shake it off, and say to the audience, “I’m so glad we could share this moment of reflection.” It got a nice laugh and some very kind, forgiving applause. And the moment allowed me to gather my thoughts, find my place in the script and carry on with my performance.

It also taught me that nothing is ever as bad as it seems, and sometimes all you need to do breathe. It makes a world of difference.

Whenever someone tells me they’re not nervous before a presentation, I wonder if they’re lying, not taking it seriously enough or they’re a sociopath.  We are naturally social beings engineered to care what other people think – to one extent or another.

But instead of allowing fear to be a barrier, we can use it to motivate us to be at our best – to put in the time, to practice, to perfect, to be fully prepared before we take to the stage. If we have done all that, then no matter what happens, we will be able to recover, and we’ll get through it.

Remember, when you are presenting, you are never alone. There is a room full of people who actually want you to succeed. You have all kinds of tools at your disposal to help you recover if necessary. Take a sip of water. Ask for questions from the audience. Or, just stop in your tracks, shut your eyes, take a deep breath, throw up a little bit in your mouth and carry on. Most people won’t notice and those that do, won’t mind.

What’s more, it’s okay to be nervous. Your fear is a good thing — it gets your adrenaline going, your blood pumping, your energy up. It doesn’t own you. It’s your fear, you own it. You are here for a reason. This is your show.

So take a breath, look to your audience, and engage.

Unless, of course, your audience happens to be a group of homicidal clowns.

Look Into My Eyes

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Feed me.  This is what every dog is saying when you look into their eyes. You know they’re playing you in the hope of getting that extra treat. But that moment when your eyes meet feels so heartwarming that it renders their manipulation superfluous (OR that it makes their manipulation feel incidental) and has you reaching into the doggie cupboard for the dried liver.

It comes to dogs instinctively and necessarily.   Since we don’t speak each other’s language, their methods of communication are limited to their eyes (and maybe their tails and teeth, if you get too energetic).   And as humans, it’s also one of the most powerful forms of non-verbal engagement. It connects and conveys sentiment – desire, happiness, surprise, anger, sadness, aggression. And love.  Our eyes say, “You’re important to me, and I care about you.”

So it baffles me that so many presenters do not use this tool in their arsenal when speaking with their audience.   I’ve noticed that many focused on anything BUT the audience, the people they’re there to engage. Instead they’re looking at inanimate objects – their speaking notes on a podium or a desk, the slides on their computer or in what I consider a worst case scenario, their PowerPoint presentation on a screen, while their backs are turned to their audience.

When this happens and I’m in the audience, I feel like I don’t matter.  They matter.   Their insecurity, or overwhelming stage fright or lack of time to rehearse and commit at least some major points to memory are what matter.   Or – less generously – they simply didn’t care enough to put in the effort.

They’re not getting one of the basic tenets of presentations.   And life.   Practice makes perfect.   And getting the content of your presentation down cold leaves you with the confidence to actually engage with your audience.  To speak to them, not at them.  To look like you’re there with them.    And you  may not look adorable enough to get that liver treat but you will convey knowledge and confidence and engender trust.   People will want to listen to you instead of checking their Facebook account on their mobile phone or wondering what they’re feeding the kids tonight.

I know, it’s scary and daunting. Fear is a prime motivator of almost every shitty presentation that’s been read off a screen.   Like most people, unless you happen to be a sociopath, you’re afraid you’ll stumble over your words, forget what you’re supposed to say, skip essential information that makes your case.  And that’s why you practice.  Alone for the first few times in whatever way is comfortable.   Lying down and memorizing.  Standing up and pacing.   And then you practice again but this time in front of someone supportive who will give you props first and then some constructive criticism.  (Remind them you need the props first, even if it’s just ‘yah, that shirt suits you’).  And when you feel confident enough to take to the stage, practice one more time. And remember, once you’ve engaged your audience, there is nothing you can do that’s so wrong – minus illegal shit – that you can’t fix it because they’re rooting for you to succeed.   You’ve got them.  They’re engaged.

Liberate yourself from the podium.  Create a personal connection with each and every audience member.  LOOK at them. You’ll feel the love.

Just look into the puppy’s eyes and tell me I’m wrong.