If you sold more than 100 million records and became one of the world’s most popular recording artists, you might think stage fright couldn’t possibly be a concern.
As Adele’s example demonstrates, having stage fright is not diminished by having tremendous accomplishments. So if accomplishing more isn’t the key to mastering stage fright, what is?
While there are many physiological approaches that address speaking as an anxiety problem, my approach is behavioral. By focusing on three key behaviors, you can start speaking with ease and control.
1. Be self-aware
If you want to speak with ease and control, you need to detect your stage fright feelings early. Think of your anxiety like a wave. If you can notice the beginning of the swell, you have plenty of time to decide what to do. Do you float forward, or go sideways? If you’re caught as the wave crashes, you will become overwhelmed. By increasing your self awareness and being mindful of the early signs of stage fright, you’ll be in a position to make choices about how you are going to react.
2. Control your breathing
As noted psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk explains in his book, “ The Body Keeps the Score,” breathing has physiological impacts on the nervous system that can alter feelings of anxiety — chest tightness, throat constriction, etc. So, you can develop more control over your anxiety by learning to control your breathing.
How does this apply to speaking? First, don’t believe the well-intentioned people who tell you to “take a big breath” before you start. What happens when you take a big breath? You hold it. You get tight. Instead, take a small sip of air and then exhale slowly, to a 4-count. You do not need big gulps of air — little sips can go a long way. The key to quality breathing is controlling the exhale.
3. Get into a rhythm
When you experience stage fright, you often feel your thoughts racing, often in different directions, and then you feel stuck — gridlock of the mind. To avoid gridlock when driving, you take can take one-way streets. To avoid gridlock when speaking, you need to get into a rhythm so that your thoughts begin to flow.
To speak rhythmically, speak in short phrases, not complex sentences. Don’t say, “You need to be self-aware, use rhythm, and control your breathing.” Instead, say, “You need to be self aware. You need to use rhythm. You need to control your breathing.” This is called a rhythmic build: Groups of phrases that use parallel structure. We actually use rhythmic builds frequently when we speak naturally, so getting into the habit of using them in your presentations will help you feel more at ease.
Wherever you are in your career, by focusing on these three steps, you can start speaking with more ease and control in every speaking situation. The sooner you can begin to notice your stage fright, the more opportunities you’ll have to make choices that will help you speak with more power and purpose.