How to Overcome Stage Fright
It’s alright to be nervous when you are in front of people. In fact, a little bit of nervousness can actually help you do your best. Trust me. I once went into an audition to sing a song I’d sung a thousand times… and ended up forgetting the words. I’d sung it so many times that I was relying on muscle memory. Then a brain hiccup came along in the middle of the song and I could not for the life of me remember the words no matter how many times I restarted. These things happen occasionally. Thankfully, I was saved by my vocal technique (see my previous posts, How to Sing Like You Know What You're Doing, Part 1 and Part 2) and managed to still get second place, but it was embarrassing nonetheless. The point is, though, that if I had been just a little bit nervous, I might have gone over my words before I entered a room full of competition judges.
But I’ve seen beginning performers that have crippling stage fright, and that really hinders a performance. So if that is you, really what you should be focusing on is not how to get rid of stage fright, but how to overcome it in such a way that it looks like you are never nervous.
I am going to give you the simplest answer to this conundrum: The ONLY way to overcome stage fright is to get on stage. Again and again and again. By getting on stage, I mean getting in front of people, and not just your friends and family (though it’s okay to start with them). There are no “get brave quick” tricks for stage fright. You’ve probably heard the one about imagining your audience in their underwear. I’ve never once heard that that worked for anyone. Think about it. Do you really have time to do that when you’re trying to remember what to say? And what if what you have to say is serious? I’ve seen some audience members that would look pretty funny in the nude… at least to me.
So, how do you overcome stage fright if you’ve never been on stage? You don’t. You can’t. Expecting otherwise would be like expecting to sound like a concert pianist when you’ve never touched a keyboard. You have to practice, just like a concert pianist. So, you need to be an expert at finding every opportunity that you can get to be in front of people.
How do you do that? Well, that all depends on where you live and what opportunities are available. You have to learn to recognize those opportunities when you see them. For example, you could read to children at the library. Children are very forgiving as long as you are able to laugh at yourself. You could read at a poetry jam. You could take a speech class or join Toastmasters International. You could speak at a wedding or a funeral (obviously for someone you know). If you have a friend who owns a bar, you could ask to introduce the band. You could read scripture during the service at your church. Keep your ears and eyes open to opportunities and don’t be afraid to take them when you see them. And take them right away before you give yourself time to think about it. “Sure, I can do that,” should be your go-to answer, even if you don’t feel like you can. Because you REALLY can. You just have to learn to fight that flight response when it comes to public speaking or performing. I promise you will find yourself getting better and better at handling your nerves.
There are however some tips that you can use to help you improve as you gain experience. Here they are:
1. Breathe. Cliche but true. Notice that when you get nervous, your breath gets shallower and quicker. You need to slow that down. Stop what you’re doing. Take a big slow breath in. Breathe out slowly. I would argue that even if you are already on stage, you should take a moment to do this. What’s worse? Shaking uncontrollably or pausing to breathe?
2. Pick a focal point that is NOT in the audience. I like to focus towards the back of the room above their heads. Sometimes you will have a loved one that says, “If you get nervous, look at me. I’m pulling for you!” This is a dangerous option. Yes, you trust your loved one with your self-esteem. But if you’ve ever thought, even for a second, that you don’t ever want to disappoint that person, that thought will amplify if you look at them.
3. Pretend you are someone else. This is obvious for actors. Get into your character and stay there. You are that person now. If you’re not an actor, make up a persona for yourself. Who do you want that person to be? An incredibly outgoing and courageous person, probably. Recognize that, for right now, that is not you, so create that person. You can even give that person a name (stage name?) and a back story. Whatever works for you. I go into more detail about this method in my post How to Take Your Performance to the Next Level of Spectacular.
4. Pretend that you are still practicing. If you’ve been practicing at home, pretend you are in your living room. If you’ve been practicing in a studio, pretend you are there. This is much easier if you are not looking at the audience. See #2.
5. Get loud. When you get nervous, you will naturally get quiet. Your audience will not be able to hear you and they will lose interest. You will realize that and become more nervous. It’s a cycle. But there’s a better cycle. Purposefully raise the volume of your voice and you will naturally gain confidence. It’s kind of like when you get mad and raise your voice. That makes your adrenaline surge and you suddenly find yourself telling the person you’re mad at all of the things you’ve been holding back. You can recreate that adrenaline when you’re onstage just by increasing your volume.
6. Slow down. Another thing that happens when you get nervous is your speech pattern gets faster. It’s hard to understand someone who is speaking too fast, so it is a dead giveaway that you are having stage fright. Concentrate on the words or lyrics that are coming out of your mouth. What do they mean? How do they sound? Pause when it is natural to pause: at a comma, between two sentences, and when you need to express an emotion. A moment’s pause onstage often feels like an eternity, but it really isn’t. And your audience will appreciate the chance to process what you are saying.
7. Relax your muscles. Particularly your neck and shoulders. I’ve seen people in stage fright that hold so much tension in their bodies that their shoulders are touching their ears by the time they are done speaking. Force yourself to keep your shoulders down and your neck loose. This will be easier when you take a breath. (See #1). Here’s an exercise you can do to practice this: Lay on the floor and bring your awareness to every muscle in your body. One at a time, release each muscle until you are completely like a rag doll on the floor. Take note of what that feels like and remember that feeling when you get nervous onstage.
These tips should help you as you get more comfortable in front of an audience. Don’t rush the process. You will get there on your own time. It’s important to accept where you are in the process and try not to be too critical of yourself. Be brave, but be forgiving. And one day, you will have the confidence that you need to achieve your goals.