As an advertising professional, I frequently present my work and ideas to groups of people, often a nerve-wracking task. Too often, I decided, so I started reading about what I could do. Below are some of my findings:
I blame my pre-performance nerves on our hunter-gatherer ancestors. They needed their community to survive and generations of living with this truth embedded the understanding in all of our brains: Social death is actual death. So we automatically react when we sense that our social reputation is in danger. Like when we get on stage for a performance and essentially create an opportunity for others to judge us. Our brains, no matter how forgiving the audience, still thinks it’s about to confront a potentially lethal situation.
It immediately reacts and forces our bodies into ‘fight or flight’ mode to create the energy it thinks its owner needs to survive. Unfortunately this includes sweaty hands, shaky knees and churning stomach. While much of the reaction is instinctual, we can develop better skills by focusing on three particular areas: perspective, practice, and breathing.
Perspective is recognizing that the fear is in your head. In the worst-case scenario, you mess up and someone laughs. Your friends and family are not going to abandon you and you will not be left to die. Keep that in mind as you approach the podium. You put yourself in a lot more danger when you get on an airplane.
Practice. The more times you do something, like feel pre-speech anxiety, the more you understand the experience and can cope. Find opportunities to practice. Toastmasters is great and is in nearly every city. I recently joined and already feel more comfortable under the spotlight.
Don’t forget to breathe. It’s proven to relax. Brazilian psychologists found that professional musicians who do deep-breathing exercises before a show feel less shaky and nervous. The deep breathing movement sends signals through your body to relax, essentially waging war against your body’s fight-or-flight response. Do it enough times, and the breathing will triumph.
I’ve explained why we have stage fright, the mechanics behind it, and how we can fight it. Hopefully the knowledge will help each of us present with a lot more confidence. Yet, be easy on yourself. As I mentioned, some of the reactions are out of our control. The trick is to manage them the best we can until even the managing part becomes second nature.