Even I who have been public speaking since the ripe age of 12 had stage fright. The major cause of my stage fright was actually concentrating too much on the content and outcome of speaking, instead of connecting with an audience. Here’s a step-by-step guide for how you too can overcome stage fright with time.
Get comfortable talking to strangers. We’ve all been taught to not talk to strangers. (Caveat: don’t talk to strangers in dark alleys.) Do approach people at events, coffee shops, or even when you’re waiting in line for the groceries. It’s easier to initiate conversation than you think. You can start with something like “Hi, I’m so-and-so.” Or if you want to be more subtle, “Hey, are the drinks here any good?” Practice breaking the ice, and do it as often as you can. Yes there maybe some people who look at your funny or walk away, so what? Remember they are a stranger, but who knows maybe you’ll make a new life long friend! The upside is in your favor.
Get comfortable with groups. Pick group settings such as your family, friends, or colleagues and lead a discussion or conversation. It doesn’t need to be formal, but you need to be the one to initiate it. You also don’t need to be talking the whole time, but you need to steer the conversation with questions, and keep it going for 10 to 15 minutes. This is basically an exercise to get you comfortable handling and engaging with an audience.
Record yourself on camera. One of the reasons people have stage fright is because they somehow think they look silly or awkward. Instead of assuming this take a little video of yourself. Maybe you do have nervous ticks, or maybe you’re very eloquent and just don’t realize it! Hard to judge, but the camera never lies.
Combine elements 1-3 and tell a story. The next time you’re a dinner party recall a story or incident you recently had experienced. The key ingredient when telling this story is to put together a mix of people you know and people you don’t know, but a small enough group, no more than 10. Keep your story short, no more than 5 minutes. Before you speak do 2 things: take 10 deep breathes and then proceed to deliver your talk as if you were talking to a friend. Telling a story is much easier than giving a presentation, because you’re focused on recalling a series of events. This approach also lets you practice spontaneity, which is really important. Too often people have stage fright because they think they’ll forget their “lines”. With a story there is nothing to forget, because you’re just recalling a series of events from memory!
Practice, practice, practice! Between high school, when I was actively public speaking every week, to college when I was just doing problem sets and coding, my public speaking skills got really rusty. I wanted to get back into it, and wouldn’t you know the stage fright of course came back! But I made it a point to do 1-4, and to keep giving talks despite feeling uncomfortable with new audiences.
Stage fright is normal! Most people are self-conscious, especially those who are like me and care about coming off polished! But they key is to worry less about coming off polished and instead focus on making connections with your audience through the act of having a conversation. Try these simple steps out, because if you start here it becomes easier, but the key of course is to start small and simple.
Come get some step-by-step coaching on how to overcome stage fright at the next Femgineer Forum on Why You Should Speak at Technical Conferences on September 24, 2014 in NYC. Register here to attend.