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.

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