Speaking Anxiety: Stage Fright

By on April 5, 2008

In the Jobs section of the New York Times, on Sunday March 30th, Phyllis Korkki has written an article entitled The Adroit Speaker Doesn’t Wing It.

That’s true and not true. I believe wholeheartedly in preparing, rehearsing, getting feedback, even scripting a speech or presentation. But then, once I have internalized the content, I boil my talk down into bullets and let myself wing it.

Rehearsal enables spontaneity. Jazz musicians work on their riffs, (their chops) in rehearsal so that they can improvise in performance. But much of that improvisation has been grooved into their muscles during hours of practice.

I don’t want to be married to a script, and I don’t think audiences want us to be married to scripts. They appreciate the fact that scripts can keep us on point, but they do not like the fact that scripts force us to read to them.

Ms. Korkki quotes Linda Blackman, founder of Executive Image in Chicago on the causes of stage fright. She says we get stage fright because:

  1. We’re afraid we will look foolish
  2. We’ll make a mistake (?)
  3. We will disappoint the boss
  4. Our expertise will be questioned
  5. We may not have prepared properly

There are other reasons as well. We may have had a traumatic experience in childhood associated with humiliation, such as answering a question in class and hearing the entire room erupt in derisive laughter. Such an experience opens a pathway in the brain that makes it more likely we will experience the flight or fight syndrome.

The ancient Greeks called this dreadful sensation glossophobia. Glossa is Greek for tongue, and phobos means fear.

The Greeks also had another word that could describe stage fright: agoraphobia, which is the fear of crowds. Agora is the Greek word for marketplace.

According to some surveys, public speaking is the number one fear in America, followed by the fear of illness, heights, deep water, snakes and bugs, financial problems, and death.

Death is number seven, which means that most people would rather die than give a talk. Seinfeld once quoted this fact on his show and quipped, “That’s why, when you go to a funeral, you’d rather be in the box than deliver the eulogy.”

It has been shown that the blood chemistry of a soldier about to go into battle is the same as that of a speaker about to go on stage.

Overcoming stage fright is a multi-channel enterprise. Ms. Korkki’s article stresses the importance of preparing your script, but there are tens of thousands of well-prepared speakers who are terrified and ineffective.

Preparing your script is a brain function, but good speaking is not entirely cognitive. It also requires the heart and the body–in other words, your emotions and your spirit.

Dr. Charles Strobel of Yale University offered a more wholistic approach. His research indicated that there are two ways to alter a distressing inner state. One is to include positive self-talk and mental imagery as you prepare. The other is to use your body to impact your inner feelings.

For instance, Strobel proved that smiling blocks the enzyme in the brain that causes us to experience fear. He encouraged deep breathing, which can have the same effect, and showed that the best way to get a deep breath is to yawn–although not in front of the audience.

He also demonstrated that by simply manipulating your posture–by standing up straight and acting as if you were feeling comfortable, you change your blood chemistry.

The power of visualizing the results you hope to achieve is an established psychological technique. The power of using gesture and movement to alter inner states is less widely known, but it is another example of how emotion influences the body, and how the body can influence our emotions.

 

 

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