I’ve been in the public eye on a pretty regular basis for about 10 years.
I’ve spoken at conferences, given presentations in front of clients and colleagues, been interviewed on the radio, taught countless classes and training programs, and am a club DJ.
I also suffered from some form of stage fright or social anxiety for many of those years.
Through research, practice, and some dumb luck, I’ve found a number of effective ways to decimate my stage fright and actually transform it into a feeling of excitement and stage presence.
I’m going to share the three most powerful tools with you today.
Pro tip: Practice mindfulness meditation alongside these exercises to really compound their benefits.
Stop Holding Your Breath
Forgetting to breath is probably one of the most common symptoms of someone experiencing stage fright. Hands down.
What’s more, by not breathing properly – too fast or not at all – you are actually making your anxiety even worse.
Esther Sternberg, a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, says that anxious breathing activates your body’s “fight or flight” stress response. This jacks up your stress hormones and now you’re a total nervous mess. Not fun, huh?
It’s a vicious cycle if you don’t handle it.
By just breathing deeply, you will activate your parasympathetic system and create a calm, relaxing sensation. Now you’re in a great place to start owning the stage.
By breathing properly, you’ll also see a return to your natural speaking voice.
When you stop breathing, your breath is usually stuck in the top of your chest or your throat. This constricts your vocal chords and you end up with an unnaturally high or low-pitched voice.
In case you’ve forgotten, here’s how you can change your breath to alleviate your stressful stage fright.
How To Breathe Properly
…Start off by slowly pulling your breath up from your pelvic area. Do it right and you’ll give your bits & pieces a nice little tingle.
…Slowly pull it up through your belly, your chest, your throat, and throughout your head. Feel it move throughout all parts of your body. Your mind will clear out a bit and you’ll feel a sense of calmness, of stability.
…Slowly breathe out through your nose.
…Rinse and repeat. For the rest of your speech and the rest of your life.
I can’t believe I just wrote over 200 words on why it’s important to breathe properly. Do it, guys. It’ll help you incredibly.
Make More Eye Contact
Pay really close attention to how you give eye contact the next time you have a conversation or give a speech. What do you do?
If you’re a normal person, you probably look away from the person, let your eyes glaze over, or – if you do look at them – you actually look past them.
Maintaining healthy eye contact can be damn difficult if you’re experiencing stage fright or social anxiety. You avert your gaze or stare at the floor. I actually used to temporarily go blind on stage and in high pressure social situations. (More on that in an upcoming article on social anxiety.)
A quick, highly effective way to give yourself a boost in stage confidence and connect with the crowd is to make genuine eye contact with people in the audience.
Softening your gaze, smiling a bit, and giving a few people in the audience a genuine look in eyes will do wonders for calming your anxiety. Do this periodically throughout your speech.
Creating eye contact creates a spike in oxytocin – the hormone responsible for feelings of love and bonding – in both you and the people you’re gazing at.
Think about that…
By taking a moment to get present and make simple, genuine eye contact with the audience, you’re able to boost your stage presence and create warm, positive feelings for everyone involved.
Speakers who make warm eye contact are speakers who the audience roots for. They want you to succeed. But, most importantly, they’ll literally – chemically – love you a little bit more.
There’s A Twist, Though…Not TOO Much Eye Contact
Eye contact can be intimidating if you do it wrong. It can easily become a scare tactic, a dominance move left over from our pre-verbal days roaming the African savannah.
And, it’s still with us today.
According to Julia Minson of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, lead of a major study on eye contact:
While [extended] eye contact may be a sign of connection or trust in friendly situations, it’s more likely to be associated with dominance or intimidation in adversarial situations.
Hell, even in friendly social situations, prolonged, deep eye contact can seem kind of awkward, overwhelming, and ‘try hard’. This is to say nothing of high stakes situations such as negotiations, sales meetings, or speeches.
Just because warm, reciprocal eye contact is a great ‘social lubricant’, you only need to lock eyes for just a few seconds to make a great impression.
Know Your Material Back-and-Forth
By nature, I’m a pretty off-the-cuff guy who waits until the last minute to prepare. I think I work well under pressure.
That said, when it comes to my speeches and sales pitches, I prepare relentlessly. I know my talking points, facts, and quips religiously.
A good speaker might spend 20 hours preparing and rehearsing his 10-minute speech. (I read that most TED speakers spend hundreds of hours preparing for an 18-minute speech!)
If it seems excessive, consider how relaxed and confident you’ll feel when you step on stage knowing that you’ve got your material down cold.
If you think you can ‘wing’ it, you’re going to struggle to put together a cohesive argument on the spot. Most people who do this end up delivering a half-assed talk that’s supremely unfocused.
That’s bush league shit, guys. You’re better than that.
It’s like my ice hockey coach told us…
“Boys! Don’t forget the 6 P’s of Success: Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance!”
No matter what happens on stage, you’ve got your material down like a boss.
If the circumstances call for it, you can mix up your speaking points on the fly.
You can improv a bit if the audience needs something a little different than what you’ve prepared.
You can be flexible with your rhythm and deliver exactly what the situation needs.
But, only if you’re totally prepared.
Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert likened a great speech to a jazz concert:
The opening and closing are always completely scripted [and rehearsed]…what makes jazz interesting and captivating is that in the middle of that tune there is always some point in which the player can go off script and spontaneously create something that captures the mood of that particular audience in that particular room at that particular point in time.
Captivating performances come from hours of hard work, repetition, and practice. There are no overnight successes. And, an impromptu speech will almost never be as good as one given extraordinary love and focus.
Goodbye, Stage Fright. Hello, Stage Presence!
Contrary to popular belief, beating your stage fright can be quick and easy.
It all starts with getting control of your nerves by learning to breath properly.
Once you control your anxiety, you can be more present and connect with your audience through your eye contact, body language, and storytelling.
And, these stories? The best stories are told with heart and soul…and lots of practice.
By knowing your speech inside and out, you remove the stress that comes from trying to sound good on the fly. Ironically, diligent practice allows you more freedom to improvise and give your audience a unique experience.
I promise you that your stage fright can be a faint memory in the distant past by committing to practicing these three powerful exercises each time you speak in public or even have a simple social interaction.
Imagine, for a second, a stage fright-free life…it can come easily.
Now, get to work!