You have probably heard the phrase that most people would rather die than present the eulogy at the funeral. Yes, public speaking brings on performance anxiety (a form of social anxiety disorder) in most of us. Performing artists, job interviewees, sports people and exam participants are also performers and are susceptible to performance anxiety.
While many of us feel anxious when we have to perform, anxiety itself is not bad. When you are stimulated, scared or anxious a flood of adrenaline and cortisol is released into your body. This prepares
you to give the highest performance, one with excitement and focus. So anxiety does serve a purpose. Most experienced performers feel concerned if they do not feel any anxiety as this can lead to a flat and dull performance.
Performance anxiety is feelings of ‘butterflies in the stomach’ or in severe cases ‘stage fright’. It is the response to ‘fight or flight’.
In some people this reaction is so debilitating that they become paralyzed by fear, unable to speak or think clearly. For someone with social anxiety disorder they may even go to the extent of refusing a promotion at work if there is any likelihood of having to do a presentation at any time.
But there are ways to help prepare to perform and to lower your state of anxiety.
Change your thinking to change the way you feel. If you start thinking about your sweating palms, racing heart and wondering if you will remember your speech your attention is divided and not on the job at hand — that of giving the speech. If you are thinking about the outcome you are distracting yourself from the task. Focus on the task at hand, the presentation you are going to give. Perceive your presentation as a challenge rather than a threat.
You wouldn’t expect someone to tell you that you were useless before you went out to perform but that’s what we tend to do to ourselves — telling ourselves that we are no good at speaking, or that we’ll be glad when it’s all over. This negative self talk needs to change into something positive — “I am well prepared and will show them what I can do.”
A good way to counteract negative thinking is to practice new thinking and create new habits. For each stage of the performance process write a set of positive self talk.
1. Preparation: The time from when you know you are to give your talk until you arrive at the venue.
a. “I am looking forward to this challenge”
b. “If I feel nervous this is natural and means that the performance is important to me”
2. Before: The time before you go on stage.
a. “I have done this in practice and can do it here”
b. Remind yourself of breathing and meditation techniques to calm yourself, and breathe easily.
3. During the performance
a. “Focus on the present”
b. Remember that if you forget something your audience has no idea that it has been left out, after all you wrote the notes.
c. A tip is that pauses are effective in a speech making, use a pause to gather your thoughts.
d. Another tip is to look just above your audience’s heads. It will appear that you are looking at them.
4. After the performance
a. “What can I learn from this performance?”
b. “Next time I’ll do even better.”
The key to your presentation of course is to be prepared. And to practice, practice, practice. Self talk will not help you if you have not prepared and do not know your subject
Many well known performers have admitted to being troubled by performance anxiety. Kim Basinger Stephen Fry, Barbara Streisand, Carly Simon and even the late Pavarotti have all suffered the affliction. These performers have made a conscious effort to control their anxiety and you can too.