By some accounts, public speaking is the No. 1 fear in America. Millions of people are limiting their careers because of this irrational fear.
Let's define stage fright. For me, it's a cold, clammy feeling of anxiety that churns in my stomach. It drains me of all my resources. I can't think, talk, breathe, or hold a piece of paper without people seeing it shiver in my hand.
Yet, if I don't have a smidgeon of stage fright stuck in my throat, I probably won't have enough energy to get people's attention and move listeners to action.
So here's the question: how can you reduce your stage fright so that it's a positive, not a career-destroying negative?
Here are three counterintuitive ways to open up a can o' whoop-ass on your stage fright. Each one is based on solid scientific research, not folklore, like "Pretend your audience is naked," or , "Look over their heads," or my least favorite of all, "Rehearse in front of a mirror." All I do when I rehearse in front of a mirror is primp.
So let's get to it.
1. Don't calm down. Get excited.
A study on anxiety-inducing activities like public speaking found that the intuitive response--consciously trying to calm down--isn't the best strategy.
Instead, people instructed to say to themselves, "I am excited" before a stressful ordeal, performed better.
The counterintuitive finding comes from a series of experiments conducted by Alison Wood Brooks, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. The basic takeaway? Forget about calming down.
Everyone knows that anxiety can hurt performance. Sure enough studies have found that people who are anxious are distracted, can't think straight, and find their working memories impaired.
Surely it makes sense, then, to try and calm down?
Actually, the evidence suggests not. In one experiment 140 participants were told to prepare a public speech. Before delivering it, half were told to say to themselves "I am excited" and the other half "I am calm."
The speeches were videotaped and analyzed by independent raters, who found that those who'd said "I am excited" consistently performed better than those who'd told themselves "I am calm."
Excited people were more persuasive, competent, confident, and persistent. Plus, they spoke for longer--presumably because they were enjoying it more.
So, don't say, "I'm nervous." Say, "I'm really excited." And mean it.
2. Stop doing relaxing breathing exercises
Ancient wisdom and modern science point to the beneficial effects of numerous breathing techniques. But most breathing exercises have a tranquilizing effect. They cause you to relax and lose energy, which is exactly what you don't want. You want to be alert, alive, and in the zone.
So here is a counterintuitive breathing technique that will pump you up, not space you out: The Stimulating Breath (also called the Bellows Breath).
The Stimulating Breath is adapted from a yogic breathing technique. Its aim is to raise vital energy and increase alertness.
Inhale and exhale rapidly through your nose, keeping your mouth closed but relaxed. Your breaths in and out should be equal in duration, but as short as possible. This is a noisy breathing exercise. Don't do it in front of the audience.
Try for three in-and-out breath cycles per second (I told you, it has to be fast.) This produces a quick movement of the diaphragm, suggesting a bellows. On your first try, do it for 15 seconds. Do not do it for more than 15 seconds on your first try. Each time you practice the Stimulating Breath, you can increase your time by five seconds or so, until you reach a full minute.
If done properly, you will feel invigorated, comparable to the heightened awareness you feel after a good workout. You should feel the effort at the back of the neck, the diaphragm, the chest, and the abdomen.
Try this breathing exercise when you're getting ready to go on. It will boost your energy level.
3. Don't just rehearse; sit there
We all know that practice makes perfect, and that rehearsing your presentation is important. But did you know there's even a better way?
Mental practice can get you closer to where you want to be in life, and it can turn you into a confident and effective presenter too. In fact, just practicing physically is less effective than combining traditional rehearsal with visualization.
Natan Sharansky, a computer specialist who spent nine years in prison in the USSR after being accused of spying for the U.S. has a lot of experience with mental practices.
While in solitary confinement, he played himself in mental chess, saying: "I might as well use the opportunity to become the world champion!" Remarkably, in 1996, Sharansky beat world champion chess player Garry Kasparov!
A study looking at brain patterns in weightlifters found that the patterns activated when a weightlifter lifted hundreds of pounds were similarly activated when the weightlifters only imagined lifting the weight. In some cases, research has revealed that mental practices are almost as effective as true physical practice, and that doing both is more effective than either alone.
For instance, in his study on everyday people, Guang Yue, an exercise psychologist from Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio, compared "people who went to the gym with people who carried out virtual workouts in their heads."
He found a 30 percent muscle increase in the group who went to the gym. However, the group of participants who conducted mental exercises of the weight training increased muscle strength by almost half as much (13.5 percent).
If world champions can get results by sitting around and thinking about stuff, you can certainly reduce your stage fright by doing the same thing.
Begin by establishing a highly specific goal. Imagine the future; in fact, picture yourself as already having achieved your goal. Speak about it as though you had already achieved it. Hold a mental "picture" of it as if it were occurring to you right at that moment. Imagine the scene in as much detail as possible. Engage as many of the five senses as you can in your visualization. Who are you with? Which emotions are you feeling right now? What are you wearing? Is there a smell in the air? What do you hear? What is your environment?
Sit with a straight spine when you do this. Practice at night or in the morning (just before/after sleep). Eliminate any doubts, if they come to you. Repeat this practice often. Combine with meditation or an affirmation (e.g. "I am courageous; I am strong," or to borrow from Ali, "I am the greatest!")
These three counterintuitive and evidence-based approaches to managing stage fright can shrink your fear, and help you be your best in high-stakes situations, when all eyes are upon you.