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Beyond Stage Fright
and into the Spotlight

Overcoming Performance Anxiety
and the Fear of Public Speaking -- 
and Winning the Hearts of Your Audience

M. Blaine Smith ~ SilverCrest Books ~ 2013

Chapter One
Fearing the Crowd

A woman I know, Sarah, struggled with crippling stage fright. The problem began when she was twelve and became tongue-tied giving an announcement at a church service. Her humiliation was so extreme that she went to any lengths after that to avoid speaking in front of a group.

In her thirties she became involved with a large Bible study for women. As the members came to know her, they perceived she had gifts for leadership and teaching. They saw her potential more clearly than she did. Through much prodding and encouragement, they finally persuaded her to try teaching at one of their weekly meetings. That involved giving a forty-minute lecture.

Though she was apprehensive as she began her talk, she was surprised to find she quickly relaxed and was able to present her material coherently. Her presentation was very well received.

Most interesting is the observation she shared with me about the experience: “You know, I found I was putting as much energy into looking for ways to avoid public speaking as it took to finally go ahead and face the challenge.”

Because you’ve picked up this book, I’m guessing you identify in some way with Sarah, that is, before she enjoyed this stunning success. The thought of speaking or performing before a crowd horrifies you, or at least makes you nervous. And if you haven’t studiously avoided all opportunities to face an audience, you’ve still caved in to more avoidance behavior than you care to admit. Like when the flu laid you low just before you were supposed to give that office presentation.

I’m guessing too—again, because you’ve picked up this book—that you’re either under pressure to speak or perform, or personally long to do so. Your job may require giving presentations, lectures or sales talks. Or you may have a gift for music, acting, or some other performance skill that you would love to use more fully—but without the crippling fear. Part of you longs to perform, while part of you wants to exit stage left before you’ve even gone on.

The greatest tragedy comes if you’re allowing fear to keep you from speaking or performing at all. If not, it’s still unfortunate that you’re going into these situations feeling feel like a lamb being led to the slaughter.

I hope that here at the outset of our discussion Sarah’s triumph gives you hope. She went on to become a respected leader and effective teacher within her study group. I’m strongly confident you can also learn to tame your fears and face an audience with confidence—and even come to cherish this role you’ve dreaded. More than anything, please keep Sarah’s reflection on her experience in mind—that she had been pouring as much energy into avoiding the spotlight as it took to finally face the challenge and step into it. Indeed, it typically takes more effort and agony to dodge a situation we fear than to confront it.

An Extremely Common Problem

It helps greatly to appreciate how common and universal the fear of facing an audience is. In a national survey, Americans were asked to note their strongest fears. Speaking before a group ranked first; death seventh.1

David Sharp, writing for Health Magazine, observes,

Pick any four people . . . and these are the odds: Two of the four will feel at least an occasional flutter of stage fright before a speech. The third will suffer nervousness that could be called bothersome but not debilitating. And the fourth person will be so fearful that he or she will avoid meetings, drop classes, refuse promotions, or change jobs to escape confronting an audience. For fully a quarter of us, then, the emotional and physiological agony of stage fright can cause us to self-destruct when facing even the most benign crowd.2

Many gregarious folks who don’t consider themselves shy at all still suffer serious performance anxiety. Indeed, it’s here that the popular definition of what it means to be shy begins to break down—or at least needs modifying. Some who are highly comfortable talking with people one-on-one freeze if asked to speak in public. Some who can confidently give a sales pitch to an individual unravel if they have to present it to a group of just a few.

One vivacious woman I know works for a major political association. She so impressed her employers with her interpersonal skills that they gave her the task of soliciting contributors and asking each to donate $1,500. She is comfortable and effective in a job that would intimidate most of us. Yet the thought of giving even a brief talk to a small group so unnerves her that she’ll go to any lengths to avoid it. It took a monumental act of will for her to present a short report on her activities to her highly supportive Sunday school class. She was on edge about it for days before.

Another friend of mine is a successful salesman of luxury automobiles. I scarcely need to tell you the level of social confidence needed to succeed in this line of work. Yet when elected president of his church fellowship, he found it unnerving to make even brief introductory remarks at the meetings. At his daughter’s wedding he worried incessantly over his only lines in the ceremony—a three-sentence commendation to the bride and groom. He was able to traverse this traumatic moment only by reading his comments verbatim from a card.

It can be a revelation to discover just how many well-known, highly successful public personalities suffer disabling performance anxiety. While singer Carly Simon’s stage fright is legendary, many other singers, such as classical vocalist Cynthia Mahaney, have testified to panic while performing. Al Roker’s predecessor at NBC’s Today, Willard Scott, spoke openly about his ordeal with stage fright; yet many who watched the outrageously popular weather anchor had no idea of the agony he suffered fulfilling his role. In fact, Scott admitted to daily episodes of severe anxiety, hyperventilation and rapid heartbeat before delivering his brief segments on NBC’s morning show. Many renowned actors confess to a lifetime battle with chronic stage fright. Acting was so traumatic for Laurence Olivier that he forbade other cast members to look him in the eye during a play.

Or consider the case of acclaimed cellist Pablo Casals. “On occasion [he] had to be physically pushed onto the stage. So debilitating was his fear that when a rock fell on Casals’ hand during a hike, he announced with great relief, ‘Thank God, I’ll never have to play cello again.’ (Fortunately—at least for his audiences—he recovered.)”3

In a recent performance, Kennedy Center honoree Buddy Guy admitted to an audience that he was nervous about playing for them. The setting? The 76-year-old bluesman’s own Chicago club at 1:00 a.m., upon being asked to sit in by a guest performer.4

My Own Experience

My interest in this topic is far from just academic, but deeply personal. Over the past forty-five-plus years I’ve given countless talks to audiences ranging in size from a handful of people to about 2,000. Settings have varied from single lectures and sermons to weekend conferences and seminars, and have also included weddings and funerals I’ve officiated. I’ve also performed as a guitarist and (most often) band leader on endless occasions since 1958, in settings varying from informal events like restaurant gigs, to song-leading at Christian services and meetings, to full-length concerts for large audiences.

I understand stage fright intimately, for I’ve suffered it numerous times when speaking and on occasion when performing. There have been more Friday nights at weekend conferences than I care to remember when I didn’t sleep a wink at all. To this day I continue to get nervous before most talks, and the logistics of performing music still stress me.

Of course, my level of experience with speaking and performing pales compared to that of many who are household names. But it has been quite sufficient to give me deep appreciation of the dynamics of performance anxiety and empathy for the struggles so many have with it.

I mention my own struggles and those of others not to dismay you, but to encourage you. Part of what makes stage fright such a monster is the fear that you’re abnormal, suffering a fate few do. You worry others will perceive you as weak-kneed, lacking courage, and a loser who has failed to master a basic life skill. To the contrary, most in your audience will likely be quite sympathetic to any nervousness you feel, and many have been there profoundly. And if you don’t let it shut you down, it will actually work for you and even endear you to your crowd, for it makes you more human and believable. More on that in a moment.

Yet the fact that you may not be able to fully overcome stage fright but will have to learn to manage it to some extent, may be unsettling at first—and so I want to say several things in response to that. First, some people—including some initially traumatized about facing an audience—do completely conquer their fears; we are each wired differently. Watch Joan River ’s hilarious documentary A Piece of Work for an inspiring picture of just how greatly one can come to relish performing and even crave it. It offers a carrot on a stick we each need to have, and which indeed some of us will actually capture.

If not, you can still make significant progress. You can reduce your fear, probably substantially, and considerably increase your confidence in front of a crowd. A major reason certain famous people continue to be nervous in front of audiences is that they expose themselves to ever greater challenges. Willard Scott, for instance, didn’t have a significant problem with stage fright when he was a popular radio personality in Washington , D.C. , or when he was a local weather anchor on TV here. It was only after moving to the Today show that the problem became serious. And who wouldn’t be intimidated, to know you have but a minute and a half to be articulate, informative and amusing to an audience of millions of strangers throughout the world who are staring at your face for that brief moment? By the same token, I doubt Laurence Olivier in his professional years would have been frightened to act in front of a rural audience of several hundred attending a community players production at a high school. But his career thrust him into some of the most prestigious and intimidating venues in the world. Small wonder stage fright continued to be a problem.

A further point—and by far the most important one: You can learn to handle stage panic or nervousness, to not be unsettled by it, and also to benefit from it. You can learn not to fear whatever fear—by the force of habit, typically—continues to dog you. There are three well-kept secrets about performance anxiety.

1. Stage fright passes. Part of what makes us leery about going into a situation where we might be afraid is the dread that fear may overwhelm us. We imagine that falling prey to stage fright is like tumbling headlong into a cavernous pit with no bottom; our fear will accelerate until it pushes us into a state of oblivion. In fact, stage fright is much less oppressive than all of that. It always passes. It is not fatal. We can endure it, survive it and function within it much better than we probably imagine.

Indeed, with the right steps of control on your part, flashes of stage fright that occur once you’re in front of an audience will usually be brief and not last for anything close to the duration of your presentation.

There has only been one occasion in my lifetime of facing audiences when stage panic lasted more than a moment and actually subdued me. I was giving the first of four Sunday-evening talks at a Baptist church in Rockville , Maryland . It was a friendly, non-intimidating audience of about forty people—much smaller than many I was speaking to at that time. And my topic was one I’d spoken on many times and was normally quite comfortable with. Yet I panicked early in the talk, and my nervousness grew to the point that I couldn’t think clearly. Finally, I told the audience I wasn’t feeling well, and asked the director of music to spell me. He led the group in a song, while I sat for several minutes and recovered. I came back and finished the talk, adequately I guess, for the people returned the next three Sundays to hear the rest—though I felt mortified by this failure.

There was a critical difference, though, between this talk and others I had given before and have since. I was sick with the flu, running a high fever, and felt lousy. I had no business being there, let alone trying to deliver an engaging lecture. Yet I had decided I must keep that commitment and that “the show must go on.” The experience taught me an unforgettable lesson about my limitations. I can give a decent talk even if very tired, if I’m well-prepared, and I’ve done so many times. But being this ill is another matter altogether. I simply can’t expect my mind to function well then, nor my emotions to be supportive.

Fortunately, by the next Sunday I felt much better. I went into that evening’s talk anxious, worried I might suffer another humiliating episode. Yet I held up fine, with no caving in to panic this time. The next two Sundays also went well, and I finished up the series without another problem.

I look back now on that unsettling experience at the Baptist church as the exception that proves the rule. On all other occasions when I’ve spoken or performed, without any exception, whatever stage fright I’ve suffered has been brief. It subsided after a minute or two, and no one in the audience likely noticed it. I’ve learned to expect stage panic to pass, and that I can handle it and not be rendered ineffective by it. An important key is certain steps I use to manage fear, which I’ll discuss in the next chapter. These give me greater confidence I can handle any anxiety that occurs and hasten it away. Good preparation of my talk or music also helps greatly, and ensures I can keep going when nervous; more on that in chapter three.

2. Some anxiety can help you better prepare and speak or perform more effectively. Many of us find that some fear of the spotlight spurs us to better prepare, and then to be more engaging in front of a crowd. This isn’t to say that some aren’t able to prepare and perform well without a stitch of fear. But it’s simply to say that nervousness you do experience can work for you, by motivating you to prepare well and to be more alert and energized before an audience.

3. Your nervousness can help you win your audience. This third well-kept secret about performance anxiety is one to which we’ve already alluded. The greatest surprise, in fact, is that those in your audience may not recognize your anxiety at all, but rather interpret it as humanness and honesty. This is especially likely if you prepare well and stay focused on meeting your audience’s needs.

A friend of mine once appeared on a live national TV program to discuss a book she had authored on overcoming the trauma of an abusive childhood. Since I was scheduled to be interviewed soon on the same show about my book Should I Get Married?, I watched with greatest interest. Though this woman is a superb writer, her public speaking experience had been minimal.

After opening pleasantries, the host began by asking her if it was difficult growing up in a dysfunctional home. My friend replied that it was extremely painful and that she and her siblings lived in constant fear of their father’s frequent tirades. After several sentences, she stopped, reached for a convenient glass of water and took a generous gulp. She then continued her testimony. Her voice quivered as she related the details of a childhood laced with fear.

This is powerful, I thought. In spite of the pressure of national TV, she’s drawn into the emotion of the discussion and showing considerable empathy with those who suffer childhood abuse.

The quivering stopped, but an emotional edge remained on her voice throughout the thirty-minute interview. She skillfully fielded questions on her own past and on the challenges faced by others from abusive backgrounds.

When the program was over, I sat stunned. This is one of the most effective TV interviews I’ve ever watched, I thought. She did what is so difficult to do through the medium of television—she connected emotionally with the viewers. I knew I couldn’t hope to match her performance.

Several days later I spoke with her and told her that the interview was, in a word, sensational. I mentioned I was particularly impressed with how well she identified emotionally with her audience. Now it was her turn to be stunned. “I didn’t feel sensational,” she said. “What you saw was not empathy; I was scared to death.” She went on to explain that she didn’t know until the moment she was escorted onto the set that this program, which she assumed would be an intimate taped interview, was to be conducted live in front of a large audience. She had ninety seconds to adjust to this startling reality and meet the host for the first time. Then came the engineer’s countdown: “Five seconds to air time, four, three . . . .” She froze and remained panicked throughout the program.

She added that she took the drink of water for a simple, pragmatic purpose—to pry her tongue loose. It had frozen to the roof of her mouth.

The irony in this case is that I’m an experienced public speaker and pride myself in detecting the nervousness that veteran speakers cover up so well. In spite of this, I didn’t pick up how truly frightened my friend was. I did sense she was slightly nervous (who wouldn’t be in these circumstances?), and she certainly was emotional. Yet I assumed the signs of emotion stemmed from her topic rather than from being panic-stricken.

Of one thing I haven’t the slightest question at all: she was effective in the interview. Indeed, it was a joy to tell her that the very display of humanity which she feared destroyed her effectiveness actually enhanced it considerably. My impression was shared by the producer, who, when I visited the program, told me she and her staff were very pleased with my friend’s performance.

Hers is a stunning example—the most intriguing I’ve seen—of how we can drastically misgauge our effectiveness with an audience. And especially if we’ve felt nervous or panicky in front of it. We imagine our anxiety has rendered us ineffective, when in fact it has done just the opposite. People have read us not as uncomfortable, but as human, sincere, engaged with our subject. My friend did so well because she was intimately familiar with her topic and deeply convinced of its importance. We can benefit similarly if we prepare our presentation carefully and own it as best we can.

Where We’re Heading

My friend’s experience shows us something else equally encouraging. It’s that we’re capable of handling greater challenges when facing an audience than we typically suppose. Of course she was nervous. She was cast suddenly, and unexpectedly, and for half an hour, in front of a studio audience of several hundred and a live TV audience of countless people. In spite of this jolt and the panic it incited, she rose to the occasion impressively, and helped many immeasurably through her interview, I’m sure. The challenges we each experience when speaking or performing usually aren’t this great, and the point is simply that we’re more capable of handling them than we imagine.

Let’s move now to talk about how we can better meet the challenges we personally face with public speaking or performing. In the next chapter (“Staring Fear Down”) we’ll look more closely at the emotion of fear itself and how we can better manage it. There are steps we can take to subdue stage fright when it occurs and to tame our anxiety about facing a crowd. They will reduce our performance anxiety, and may eliminate it altogether. If not, they will give us the confidence we can handle any fear that arises and function just fine even with it present. That realization itself does wonders to quell our anxiety, since much of what we fear, after all, is fear itself.

In chapter three (“Tips for Facing an Audience”) we’ll look at how to meet the practical challenges of an audience presentation. I’ll offer many tips for preparing a compelling talk and handling the logistics of public speaking. Much of this advice applies equally well to musicians and other performers. But my major concern in this chapter is to help you thrive at public speaking.

Then in chapter four (“Feeling Like a Fake”) we’ll talk about an issue that troubles many who speak or perform, yet is seldom understood well or even addressed. Dubbed “the impostor phenomenon” by some psychologists, it’s the fear you’re being inauthentic taking on a certain role—in this case, that of public speaker or performer. You worry that you’re less competent than others perceive, that you’re not worthy of your audience’s acclaim, and that (far and away the worst part) some mortifying incident will expose you to everyone as a fake. Indeed, impostor fears are at the heart of the nervousness and panic many experience in front of an audience. If this shoe fits in your case, you’ll find encouragement in chapter four, and counsel for handling the problem.

In chapter five (“Help from Behind the Scenes”) I’ll examine a matter of great interest to me personally, and that’s God’s role in helping us overcome performance anxiety and succeed with an audience. I’ll look, too, at the role of prayer and the open door we have to ask for God’s help. This area will obviously be of more interest to some readers than others. You may or may not be persuaded God exists—or if he does, that he’s interested in helping you with your challenges. But I hope you’ll at least read this chapter with an open mind to the possibility that there’s more to God and his role in your life than you’ve realized. I offer this chapter for the benefit of my Christian readers especially, and for any others wanting to give this area a deeper look.

In chapter six (“Meds”) I’ll look at the pros and cons of using beta-blockers to soften performance anxiety, and advise about obtaining them. Then in chapter seven (“Start Badly, Finish Well”), I’ll consider why things so often seem to go poorly for the musician in the opening moments on stage, and what to do about it. In chapter eight (“Sharpening Your Conversational Skills”) we’ll look at how having good conversation with people at a talk or performance can reduce your anxiety once on stage and help you communicate better with your audience. And I’ll offer tips for meeting and chatting with people on these occasions. Finally, in chapter nine (“Toastmasters and Support Groups”), I’ll look at how certain speakers and performers support groups can help you with performance anxiety as well as help you become the best at your craft.

Don’t Be Discouraged by Past Experiences

So many who are frightened of performing or public speaking trace their fear to a traumatic childhood experience. You got up, confident and bubbly, to give a report in Mrs. Hill’s English class but then blanked out. Mrs. Hill rebuked you for not being prepared, and classmates laughed at your debacle. Such experiences are common in childhood. Too often, though, they set in concrete for a lifetime our expectations about facing an audience, just as Sarah’s embarrassing moment at twelve haunted her well into her adult years. Remember that as an adult you now have talents, insight and coping strategies that weren’t available to you as a child. Your past does not have to define your future.

Don’t be deterred, either, if you’ve had an embarrassing experience in front of a group as an adult. You can learn from that episode and improve; you don’t have to repeat the pattern. Even accomplished speakers report mortifying incidents in their early experiences with an audience. When a young and inexperienced Billy Graham took a church pastorate, he prepared a series of four sermons to launch his ministry. On the first Sunday morning he was so nervous that he preached all four of them—in ten minutes! Yet Graham went on to become the twentieth century’s most loved and influential evangelist, speaking to stadium-filled crowds and counseling many United States presidents.

He and so many others we could cite overcame initial mistakes to become highly effective communicators. No matter what your issues or fears are about facing a crowd, I’m strongly confident you can gain confidence and effectiveness in a role that may have traumatized you in the past. This is possible if you’ll make a sincere effort to understand and apply the counsel in the pages ahead, with an open mind to reinventing your experience onstage. To that end, I’ll offer the best advice and encouragement I can. If taking the stage has been a trial for you, a whole new world of experience awaits you, and I write with every best wish for your success!

Excerpt taken from Emotional Intelligence for the Christian, by M. Blaine Smith. Copyright 2012 by M. Blaine Smith. Used on this web site with permission from SilverCrest Books, P.O. Box 448, Damascus, MD 20872.

1David Sharp, “Send in the Crowds,” Health Magazine 6 (April 1992): p. 66.
2Ibid., pp. 66-67.
3Ibid., p. 66.
4Neely Tucker, “Buddy Guy’s Kennedy Center Honors Blues,” Washington Post, November 30, 2012.

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