Articles about performance anxiety, aka “stage fright,” usually start the same way: Surveys reveal that Americans fear public speaking more than anything else, including death. Well, I’m pleased to report that public speaking is now just Americans’ #59 fear (according to The Chapman University Survey on American Fears, 2018). This means it falls well behind such favorites as “widespread civil unrest” (#24), “nuclear weapons attack” (#25), and, of course, sharks (#51). However, we Americans continue to fear public speaking more than being kidnapped (#61), so I suppose there’s still work to do.
If speaking or performing in front of people freaks you out, you’re hardly alone. Stage fright is super common. To quote Mark Twain: “There are two types of speakers: Those that are nervous and those that are liars.” Even people who enjoy public speaking or are elite performers get nervous. Adele told Rolling Stone, “I’m scared of audiences. . . . One show in Amsterdam, I was so nervous I escaped out the fire exit. I’ve thrown up a couple of times.” It hasn’t exactly held Adele back, and it doesn’t need to hold you back either.
Presenting in public is a high-value skill
Psychologists and biologists have developed a comprehensive understanding of performance anxiety, both what causes it and how to manage it. That’s a good thing, because the ability to get up in front of people is a skill well worth having. Verbal communication skills are among the top skills that employers look for, according to a 2015 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. In a 2015 analysis by LinkedIn, the most sought-after “soft skill” in the workplace was “communication”—and that includes communicating in public to multiple people.
Stage fright is a thing we can work with
If you have stage fright, you already know how it feels—the racing heart, the stomach butterflies—but here’s what’s actually happening in your body and mind.
Your sympathetic nervous system, which governs the flight-or-fight response, takes over and floods your body with norepinephrine and other hormones (Science, 2011). These hormones trigger a surge of energy and an increase in your breathing and heart rate. Meanwhile, the parts of your brain dealing with rational thought begin to go off-line. This would be a perfectly healthy and useful response if you were facing down a saber-toothed tiger. In that situation, you need to default to instinct (e.g., run). Unfortunately, the fear response is less helpful when we’re trying to deliver a piano concerto or speech. Today, our fears are usually not about immediate, serious dangers. But we can perceive danger in being judged negatively or critiqued, and that can trigger the same old responses in us.
We can deal with this. Anxiety about giving public performances is eminently treatable; the main problem is a lack of information. In a 2011 study of 160 music students, half of the respondents admitted that they knew little or nothing about coping strategies for stage fright (International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health). Yet two in three expressed willingness to accept support, and all of them wanted to learn more.
4 ways to slay the angst and own the show
1. Cognitive behavioral approaches
Cognitive behavioral (“CB”) techniques are an effective way to reduce performance anxiety, research shows. This therapeutic approach has two steps, experts say. “It entails recognizing and altering the faulty thoughts contributing to the fear,” says Dr. Rachel Koslowski, a clinical psychologist with expertise in anxiety who practices privately in New York City. Then, “integrate behavioral techniques to assuage anxiety,” she says. These three strategies can help:
1. Graded exposure
Create a “fear hierarchy”: a list of situations that make you anxious, arranged from least to most anxiety-provoking. Then tackle these situations one at a time. For example, “Reading a paragraph from this article aloud to your roommate could be the scenario that makes you the least anxious . . . followed by speaking to a stranger at a party, then asking a question in a meeting . . . then offering to speak at an event,” says Dr. Koslowski. Practice each goal until you are truly comfortable before moving on.
2. Challenge automatic thoughts
Dr. Koslowski suggests you “identify the unhelpful thoughts that come to mind when you think about performing in public.” The process looks like this:
- Identify the thought that accompanies your anxiety; for example, “My presentation is going to go horribly, and I’ll never be good enough.”
- Challenge that thought with questions like these:
- What is the evidence that your presentation will go badly?
- Why should the quality of your presentation determine your worth as a person?
- Once you have recognized the flaws in your thinking, replace the original thought with a more helpful and less distorted one, such as, “I’ve prepared extensively for this presentation and have no reason to think it will go badly. Plus, it’s just a presentation; even if it did go badly, that wouldn’t impact my life in any major way.”
3. Reframe anxiety as something positive
Those sensations of pre-performance anxiety you feel in your body? Just reframe them as excitement, instead of something sinister. Sped-up heart, fluttery stomach—these occur if you have performance anxiety, sure, but also if you’re about to meet Rihanna or find out if you made the soccer team.
Consider also that the physiological changes brought on by stress are, in many ways, specifically designed by evolution to improve performance (Emotion, 2014). Studies have shown that viewing anxiety symptoms as excitement and reframing them as helpful can improve performance in public speaking, musical performance, and sports. It’s easy to do: In one study, participants accomplished it simply by saying “I am excited” out loud before performing (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 2014).
“Try to turn your nervousness into excitement; positive thinking is extremely effective if practiced regularly,” says Twila M., a third-year undergraduate at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
2. Mindfulness-based methods
Mindfulness, a simple mental practice derived from meditation, is also super helpful for coping with stage fright. I’m a mindfulness teacher, so I’m all about using these techniques to handle uncomfortable thoughts and situations. And I have science backing me up. Research has shown that mindfulness can reduce anxiety (Clinical Psychology Review, 2013; Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2010). Performance anxiety is no exception. I feel anxious whenever I present in front of people, and my mindfulness practice is what gets me through it. Try these two strategies:
1. “Floating noting”
That’s my label for this ancient technique:
When anxious thoughts arise, mentally label them “thinking.”
When uncomfortable sensations in your body arise, mentally label them “feeling.”
When I get anxious about a presentation, I close my eyes and start labeling. The pounding of my heart and the butterflies in my stomach become simply “feeling.” Thoughts like “I’m going to mess up” or “People are going to laugh” or “Sweet, merciful Oprah, why am I doing this?” become simply “thinking.”
When we label thoughts “thinking,” we don’t buy into their stories. When we label body sensations “feeling,” we can observe them without getting frightened or overwhelmed by them.
2. The mindful pause
This takes 30 seconds and has four simple steps:
- Take a slow, deep breath. Fill your lungs, then exhale slowly.
- Open your attention to the sensations in your body. Let yourself notice whatever comes up: warmth, tingling, pressure, or the touch of clothing. There’s no need to evaluate the sensations as “good” or “bad.” This step needn’t take longer than one in-breath or out-breath. Stay with it longer if you like, but it can be that quick.
- Pay gentle attention to the sensation of air touching your nostrils as you breathe. Just like the previous step, this step can be as short as one in-breath or one out-breath.
- Reengage with the world, without hurry. Open your eyes if you’d closed them and carry on with your day.
3. Practical prep strategies
Best way to conquer stage fright? “Know what you’re talking about,” says Dr. Mike Mescon, dean emeritus at Georgia State University. When it comes to public speaking, you can practice CB and mindfulness strategies until your brains leak out your ears, but there’s no substitute for preparation and understanding what makes a great presentation. I say that as someone who speaks in front of large audiences pretty often.
- Practice: Rehearse more than you think you need to. You want to be so comfortable with the material that it’s almost boring for you. Speak up: You’re talking quieter than you think. “Practice in front of people you trust and feel comfortable with so you can get their feedback. Practice in front of a mirror. Practicing in the area you’ll be speaking helps too,” says Brianna M., fourth-year undergraduate at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada.
- Rehearse in front of a friend: They’ll spot opportunities for improvement that you can’t on your own. Video yourself so you can rehearse in front of you, too.
- Embrace the pause: It gives you time to collect your thoughts, sounds better than “um,” and adds dynamism to a presentation. As 19th-century English poet and essayist Martin Farquhar Tupper said, “Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech.”
- If you’re using slides, keep the text to a minimum: People can’t read and listen at the same time. I use almost no text and keep my slides largely image-based. That said, images can be more powerful than words. And it’s fine to provide source references on a slide or in a handout.
- If you want to have a written reference on hand, use note cards with bullet points: Reading from a script sounds stilted; bullet points can jog your memory while letting you express yourself in a natural-sounding way.