Advertising
Advertising

Can You Beat Onstage Anxiety?

Can You Beat Onstage Anxiety?

Tomorrow’s the big day. You have a presentation that you must do. You can’t get out of it. You toss and turn all night, dreading the coming dawn like a condemned man waiting for the sound of the tumbrel wheels on the cobblestones outside your cell.

Oooooo!

Okay, I am being a bit dramatic but according to surveys, many people are terrified of public speaking and would rather die than stand up in front of a group and say anything. If you are feeling nervous at the mere idea of addressing a group, you are not alone.

That said, knowing you are not alone does not help you when you are standing up there, well… alone baring your soul to those who may or may not be sympathetic to your cause. Stage fright is a big deal. I have been a musician,dancer and instructor for decades and in the beginning I had a huge problem with stage fright. It was so bad that I actually would not remember what happened on stage. Since my chosen profession had a lot to do with performing, I had no choice but to try and figure out a way to handle it.

As a performer, (and public speaking is performing) you are only as good as how well you perform. Nobody cares how great you sound in the studio or your living room. Am I nervous when I perform? Sure! Performing is like getting ready to ride a roller coaster. You get nervous, you master your fear, you get out there and you pull it off. Then, you get in line for your next ride because the last one was just so awesome!

Even the pros are still a little bit nervous just before they go onstage. Thinking that performing or presenting can be done without any emotional reaction is unrealistic. So how do these pros make it look so easy?

1. They prepare their content well.

The point of speaking to a group is to get your own personal communication across to more than one person. Your message is of paramount importance. It must be concise, presented in a proper sequence and easy to understand and communicate.

To start, choose your overall message. Write it out and ensure that it can be said in a line or two. If you cannot do this, your message is too vague and you will ramble. Don’t try to address too much in one presentation. Your one message should have offshoots but make sure each one leads back to and reaffirms your primary message.

Start by writing an outline of your presentation with a statement of your message first.  Save this to refer to when you are presenting. Like a short story, your presentation should have an introduction, a body and an ending. This is the accepted form of communication. Lacking this, your presentation will not make sense.

Make sure the parts of your presentation are in a chronological sequence that can be mentally followed by  your audience without effort. If things get complex, make sure you have graphics or sketches so your audience can SEE what you are talking about.

If your presentation is out of sequence or hard to envision, or too complicated, you will force your audience to skid off into a mental ditch, and you will lose them.

Advertising

Look over your outline from the point of view of your least experienced or educated audience member. Make sure it is understandable to them and does not leave them with more questions than answers.

Ensure that every moment of your presentation provides your listener with some valuable takeaway.

My favorite author, P.G. Wodehouse (the genius who invented Jeeves and Wooster), had a standard that he used when writing his brilliant novels. He said that he was never finished with a work until every single line in it had some sort of entertainment value. I picked up one of his novels and by golly he was right! He achieved this standard consistently and as a result has a huge following decade after decade. His novels are classics.

Knowing this, apply this standard to every one of your talking points. Eliminate any useless fluff that does not educate and/or entertain. Eliminate anything that does not pertain to your message.

If you use a word that your audience may not know, define it for them. Steer clear of acronyms and code words. These are the black ice of a presentation and are guaranteed to land your hapless audience in a mental ditch. You will be chattering on and moving forward and they will be lying there twisted and crushed and bleeding radiator fluid. (more drama)

2. They drill, drill drill!

Once you have done the above, put yourself in front of a mirror with everything you will be using to present or perform. Gather together your graphics. If you are presenting in high heels, put those on. In short, make it as close to the actual presentation as you can. Any little unresolved detail that steals your attention on the day of your presentation will distract your audience.

For performing artists, this applies equally. Rehearsing in sneakers will not prepare you for shoes that hurt after ten minutes on stage. Tight jackets, or sleeves that get in the way are all distractions for you and your audience, not to mention the dreaded faux leather (vinyl) pants that make you sweat like a Gorgonzola after two minutes under hot lights.

Set all of this up and drill your presentation in front of a mirror. Do not criticize your personal appearance on those things you cannot correct. By this I mean quit telling yourself that your nose is too big, you are too fat or thin or short etc. This accomplishes nothing positive.

Criticize only the points you can correct immediately. Adjust your presentation as you go. When you have done this several times you will have your presentation in its final form.

When you think you have drilled enough, drill some more. You will be amazed at how much calmer you feel walking into a stressful situation knowing without a doubt that you are fully prepared.

3. They know the curve of emotion that occurs during a performance.

Understand that just before you go on and the first few minutes of your performance are the scariest. Once you are through this, the rest is cake.

Advertising

While you are waiting for your entrance, don’t try to talk yourself out of your nervousness.This only serves to fix your attention more solidly on the dreaded event making it worse.  Instead, unfix your attention by looking at a point later that day. Picture yourself back in your office afterward feeling calm and relaxed. Picture the coming weekend with your kids doing something fun. Picture going to a movie. In short, create future pleasant experiences and these will pull you through the dreaded present.

If you have adequately drilled, there is nothing more you can do to ensure a great performance. At this point it is best to trust yourself and know you will pull it off rather than go over and over your presentation in your mind. I have done this many times and it was never productive. Instead it created more problems.

Once you get onstage it may be tempting to notice that your hands are shaking. Okay, so they are shaking. Who cares? Your message is more important than shaking hands. Focus on your message. The attention of your audience will be on what YOUR attention is on. If you focus on shaking hands, they will suddenly notice them. If you focus on a quavery voice, they will notice that too. If these things occur but you continue to focus on your message, they will get it.

Ensure that your words reach the audience by deciding that your words will reach the back wall or a point beyond your audience. This way, listeners will not be yelling “Speak Up!” when you start your presentation. If this occurs, it distracts your audience and gives the impression that you have lost control of the presentation.

If you have an audience member who insists on interrupting you or heckling you in a presentation, it is perfectly okay to politely ask them to refrain from interrupting you. It is rude to interrupt and there are rare audience members who do try to take control of an event to the detriment of you and your audience. You are responsible for the outcome of the event. You are the one who prepared and drilled. It is not okay to allow someone to take control of your forum. It is okay to impose some slight discipline on your audience and in fact, those who came to receive your message will appreciate it.

It can be as simple as pointing out that others might not have the same questions and that you can see this person afterward, or stating that questions will be addressed at the end of the presentation.

Once you get through the first few minutes you will notice that it gets easier. Then follow your outline as rehearsed and you will be great.

4. They gauge the overall emotion of the audience.

Is your audience enthusiastic? Conservative? Antagonistic? Apathetic?

Find the prevalent emotion and start speaking in that emotion. Practice varying these emotions in your rehearsal. When I was playing in a club band, each club drew different people in different emotional tones but one tone was always prevalent. Our band leader knew this and chose songs appropriately.

Biker bars tended to be a bit aggressive and somewhat angry. We chose harder rock and rebellious songs. Church gigs, of course would be a completely different mindset. For these events we would choose feel good songs.

It is best if you practice this to the point where you can do it on the fly. This way you are sure of engaging your audience from the outset.

Advertising

5. They do a lot of performing/speaking.

One thing I constantly tell my students is that performance is its own skill. The only way to get good at it is to do it. Unfortunately if you crash and burn, you do so in front of people BUT it doesn’t kill you and I would wager that most public speakers have had some pretty epic crashes and burns. I hate to say it but it is part of the game. If you give up after one crash and burn, you have lost.

I recall one event in which I was performing as a belly dancer. I was getting ready to put a lit candle on my head and do a candle dance. Just as I was lifting the candle, hot wax spilled barely missing my bare shoulder. The audience gasped and I knew that if I did not handle the remaining wax, they would be nervous throughout the performance and I would lose them, not to mention that I might get burned.

This was not the message I wanted to convey so I danced over to a nearby plastic plant and dumped the wax into it. I then put my finger to my lips indicating that this was our little secret, just me and the entire audience would know. They laughed and the tension was diffused. I still watch that video and laugh my butt off. I don’t know who owned that plant. Happily candle wax does not kill plastic.

While this was a happy ending, I had had many spectacular crash/burns prior to that point. Once you drag yourself out of the figurative ditch and seek emergency medical care for the umpteenth time, you can look back and do what my husband calls a “postmortem” which means an assessment of where you went wrong and how to avoid painful missteps in the future.

5. They have solutions for the symptoms of nervousness.

“The only thing to fear is fear itself!” Thank you Winston Churchill! He must have been talking about public speaking. I’ll bet he observed the following tactics:

Q: How can I handle my voice if it shakes?

A: Practice breathing and do vocal exercises for singers.

Q: What do I do with my hands if they are shaking and the audience then feels uncomfortable?

A: Hide them or hold them. If you have this problem do not incorporate into your presentation anything that will make this noticeable. Avoid holding single sheets of paper that will appear to take off like spastic wings if your hand starts to shake.

Q: Where do I look?

A: I look at a point beyond the audience when singing but if speaking, I look at various people in the room just as if I am talking to them alone. You do not have to make a point of looking at everyone. There are many schools of thought on this but I say do what feels natural. Trying to contrive a “natural method of speaking” doesn’t work. One motto I love is”If yer thinkin’ yer stinkin’.” This was told to me by a fine musician as he discussed the art of performing. Don’t think! Do!

Advertising

You will notice as a speaker that there are audience members who are more alive and engaged than others. I talk to them.

Speaking is a two way street. If I get positive feedback from someone in the audience they get rewarded with my attention.

6. They count each performance as an opportunity to hone their performance skills.

Each onstage experience makes you better no matter how it goes. Okay, so dumping candle wax into someone else’s plastic ficus was not my idea of a great performance. I had another performance outdoors where I stepped onstage and the wind blew out the candle immediately. Wow! Impressive! I can dance with an unlit candle on my head! It was supposed to be an impressive display of skill and ended up a comedy routine.

What was my Learning Takeaway? Don’t do a candle dance in high winds and dump your wax before you go onstage (or ensure that there are strategically placed plastic flora at every turn).

You will no doubt run into different and equally amusing situations and you will make your own list of Learning Takeaways. Heck! You might come up with enough of them that you could write a book!

Speaking and performing are very special skills. When you master (notice I did not say “if”?) you will wield the power to communicate broadly. You will be able to get your message across easily.

For more tips, please refer to my article “How to Give a Killer Presentation When You Feel Like Dying” right here on Lifehack.org.

Good luck! Write me and let me know how it goes!

Featured photo credit: http://www.Stockpic.com via Stokpic.com

More by this author

Chris Ellis

Successful Author, Life Coach and Musician

Living in Fear? 14 Ways to Live Life Free of Fear and Full of Hope The Little Prince Quotes That Will Inspire You: Wit and Wisdom Explained Mastering Onstage Anxiety Can You Beat Onstage Anxiety? Travel is the Wise Man's Addiction 15 Reasons Traveling Is the Wise Man’s Addiction Be Lucky! 15 Ways to Create Your Own Luck

Trending in Communication

1 7 Hardest Languages to Learn For English Speakers 2 8 Simple Ways to Be a Better Listener 3 11 Tips for Maintaining a Positive Attitude Every Day 4 What Is the Meaning of Life? A Guide to Living With Meaning 5 How to Stop Being a Perfectionist (Step-by-Step Guide)

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on October 22, 2020

8 Simple Ways to Be a Better Listener

8 Simple Ways to Be a Better Listener

How would you feel if you were sharing a personal story and noticed that the person to whom you were speaking wasn’t really listening? You probably wouldn’t be too thrilled.

Unfortunately, that is the case for many people. Most individuals are not good listeners. They are good pretenders. The thing is, true listening requires work—more work than people are willing to invest. Quality conversation is about “give and take.” Most people, however, want to just give—their words, that is. Being on the receiving end as the listener may seem boring, but it’s essential.

When you are attending to someone and paying attention to what they’re saying, it’s a sign of caring and respect. The hitch is that attending requires an act of will, which sometimes goes against what our minds naturally do—roaming around aimlessly and thinking about whatnot, instead of listening—the greatest act of thoughtfulness.

Without active listening, people often feel unheard and unacknowledged. That’s why it’s important for everyone to learn how to be a better listener.

What Makes People Poor Listeners?

Good listening skills can be learned, but first, let’s take a look at some of the things that you might be doing that makes you a poor listener.

1. You Want to Talk to Yourself

Well, who doesn’t? We all have something to say, right? But when you are looking at someone pretending to be listening while, all along, they’re mentally planning all the amazing things they’re going to say, it is a disservice to the speaker.

Yes, maybe what the other person is saying is not the most exciting thing in the world. Still, they deserve to be heard. You always have the ability to steer the conversation in another direction by asking questions.

It’s okay to want to talk. It’s normal, even. Keep in mind, however, that when your turn does come around, you’ll want someone to listen to you.

2. You Disagree With What Is Being Said

This is another thing that makes you an inadequate listener—hearing something with which you disagree with and immediately tuning out. Then, you lie in wait so you can tell the speaker how wrong they are. You’re eager to make your point and prove the speaker wrong. You think that once you speak your “truth,” others will know how mistaken the speaker is, thank you for setting them straight, and encourage you to elaborate on what you have to say. Dream on.

Disagreeing with your speaker, however frustrating that might be, is no reason to tune them out and ready yourself to spew your staggering rebuttal. By listening, you might actually glean an interesting nugget of information that you were previously unaware of.

3. You Are Doing Five Other Things While You’re “Listening”

It is impossible to listen to someone while you’re texting, reading, playing Sudoku, etc. But people do it all the time—I know I have.

Advertising

I’ve actually tried to balance my checkbook while pretending to listen to the person on the other line. It didn’t work. I had to keep asking, “what did you say?” I can only admit this now because I rarely do it anymore. With work, I’ve succeeded in becoming a better listener. It takes a great deal of concentration, but it’s certainly worth it.

If you’re truly going to listen, then you must: listen! M. Scott Peck, M.D., in his book The Road Less Travel, says, “you cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” If you are too busy to actually listen, let the speaker know, and arrange for another time to talk. It’s simple as that!

4. You Appoint Yourself as Judge

While you’re “listening,” you decide that the speaker doesn’t know what they’re talking about. As the “expert,” you know more. So, what’s the point of even listening?

To you, the only sound you hear once you decide they’re wrong is, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!” But before you bang that gavel, just know you may not have all the necessary information. To do that, you’d have to really listen, wouldn’t you? Also, make sure you don’t judge someone by their accent, the way they sound, or the structure of their sentences.

My dad is nearly 91. His English is sometimes a little broken and hard to understand. People wrongly assume that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about—they’re quite mistaken. My dad is a highly intelligent man who has English as his second language. He knows what he’s saying and understands the language perfectly.

Keep that in mind when listening to a foreigner, or someone who perhaps has a difficult time putting their thoughts into words.

Now, you know some of the things that make for an inferior listener. If none of the items above resonate with you, great! You’re a better listener than most.

How To Be a Better Listener

For conversation’s sake, though, let’s just say that maybe you need some work in the listening department, and after reading this article, you make the decision to improve. What, then, are some of the things you need to do to make that happen? How can you be a better listener?

1. Pay Attention

A good listener is attentive. They’re not looking at their watch, phone, or thinking about their dinner plans. They’re focused and paying attention to what the other person is saying. This is called active listening.

According to Skills You Need, “active listening involves listening with all senses. As well as giving full attention to the speaker, it is important that the ‘active listener’ is also ‘seen’ to be listening—otherwise, the speaker may conclude that what they are talking about is uninteresting to the listener.”[1]

As I mentioned, it’s normal for the mind to wander. We’re human, after all. But a good listener will rein those thoughts back in as soon as they notice their attention waning.

Advertising

I want to note here that you can also “listen” to bodily cues. You can assume that if someone keeps looking at their watch or over their shoulder, their focus isn’t on the conversation. The key is to just pay attention.

2. Use Positive Body Language

You can infer a lot from a person’s body language. Are they interested, bored, or anxious?

A good listener’s body language is open. They lean forward and express curiosity in what is being said. Their facial expression is either smiling, showing concern, conveying empathy, etc. They’re letting the speaker know that they’re being heard.

People say things for a reason—they want some type of feedback. For example, you tell your spouse, “I had a really rough day!” and your husband continues to check his newsfeed while nodding his head. Not a good response.

But what if your husband were to look up with questioning eyes, put his phone down, and say, “Oh, no. What happened?” How would feel, then? The answer is obvious.

According to Alan Gurney,[2]

“An active listener pays full attention to the speaker and ensures they understand the information being delivered. You can’t be distracted by an incoming call or a Facebook status update. You have to be present and in the moment.

Body language is an important tool to ensure you do this. The correct body language makes you a better active listener and therefore more ‘open’ and receptive to what the speaker is saying. At the same time, it indicates that you are listening to them.”

3. Avoid Interrupting the Speaker

I am certain you wouldn’t want to be in the middle of a sentence only to see the other person holding up a finger or their mouth open, ready to step into your unfinished verbiage. It’s rude and causes anxiety. You would, more than likely, feel a need to rush what you’re saying just to finish your sentence.

Interrupting is a sign of disrespect. It is essentially saying, “what I have to say is much more important than what you’re saying.” When you interrupt the speaker, they feel frustrated, hurried, and unimportant.

Interrupting a speaker to agree, disagree, argue, etc., causes the speaker to lose track of what they are saying. It’s extremely frustrating. Whatever you have to say can wait until the other person is done.

Advertising

Be polite and wait your turn!

4. Ask Questions

Asking questions is one of the best ways to show you’re interested. If someone is telling you about their ski trip to Mammoth, don’t respond with, “that’s nice.” That would show a lack of interest and disrespect. Instead, you can ask, “how long have you been skiing?” “Did you find it difficult to learn?” “What was your favorite part of the trip?” etc. The person will think highly of you and consider you a great conversationalist just by you asking a few questions.

5. Just Listen

This may seem counterintuitive. When you’re conversing with someone, it’s usually back and forth. On occasion, all that is required of you is to listen, smile, or nod your head, and your speaker will feel like they’re really being heard and understood.

I once sat with a client for 45 minutes without saying a word. She came into my office in distress. I had her sit down, and then she started crying softly. I sat with her—that’s all I did. At the end of the session, she stood, told me she felt much better, and then left.

I have to admit that 45 minutes without saying a word was tough. But she didn’t need me to say anything. She needed a safe space in which she could emote without interruption, judgment, or me trying to “fix” something.

6. Remember and Follow Up

Part of being a great listener is remembering what the speaker has said to you, then following up with them.

For example, in a recent conversation you had with your co-worker Jacob, he told you that his wife had gotten a promotion and that they were contemplating moving to New York. The next time you run into Jacob, you may want to say, “Hey, Jacob! Whatever happened with your wife’s promotion?” At this point, Jacob will know you really heard what he said and that you’re interested to see how things turned out. What a gift!

According to new research, “people who ask questions, particularly follow-up questions, may become better managers, land better jobs, and even win second dates.”[3]

It’s so simple to show you care. Just remember a few facts and follow up on them. If you do this regularly, you will make more friends.

7. Keep Confidential Information Confidential

If you really want to be a better listener, listen with care. If what you’re hearing is confidential, keep it that way, no matter how tempting it might be to tell someone else, especially if you have friends in common. Being a good listener means being trustworthy and sensitive with shared information.

Whatever is told to you in confidence is not to be revealed. Assure your speaker that their information is safe with you. They will feel relieved that they have someone with whom they can share their burden without fear of it getting out.

Advertising

Keeping someone’s confidence helps to deepen your relationship. Also, “one of the most important elements of confidentiality is that it helps to build and develop trust. It potentially allows for the free flow of information between the client and worker and acknowledges that a client’s personal life and all the issues and problems that they have belong to them.”[4]

Be like a therapist: listen and withhold judgment.

NOTE: I must add here that while therapists keep everything in a session confidential, there are exceptions:

  1. If the client may be an immediate danger to himself or others.
  2. If the client is endangering a population that cannot protect itself, such as in the case of a child or elder abuse.

8. Maintain Eye Contact

When someone is talking, they are usually saying something they consider meaningful. They don’t want their listener reading a text, looking at their fingernails, or bending down to pet a pooch on the street. A speaker wants all eyes on them. It lets them know that what they’re saying has value.

Eye contact is very powerful. It can relay many things without anything being said. Currently, it’s more important than ever with the Covid-19 Pandemic. People can’t see your whole face, but they can definitely read your eyes.

By eye contact, I don’t mean a hard, creepy stare—just a gaze in the speaker’s direction will do. Make it a point the next time you’re in a conversation to maintain eye contact with your speaker. Avoid the temptation to look anywhere but at their face. I know it’s not easy, especially if you’re not interested in what they’re talking about. But as I said, you can redirect the conversation in a different direction or just let the person know you’ve got to get going.

Final Thoughts

Listening attentively will add to your connection with anyone in your life. Now, more than ever, when people are so disconnected due to smartphones and social media, listening skills are critical.

You can build better, more honest, and deeper relationships by simply being there, paying attention, and asking questions that make the speaker feel like what they have to say matters.

And isn’t that a great goal? To make people feel as if they matter? So, go out and start honing those listening skills. You’ve got two great ears. Now use them!

More Tips on How to Be a Better Listener

Featured photo credit: Joshua Rodriguez via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Skills You Need: Active Listening
[2] Filtered: Body language for active listening
[3] Forbes: People Will Like You More If You Start Asking Follow-up Questions
[4] TAFE NSW Sydney eLearning Moodle: Confidentiality

Read Next