When we have practiced something so well that we no longer need to think about it, subconscious processing systems are at work.
We choke under pressure because being in front of an audience is a novel condition that can thwart the normal brain processing of tasks that are so well learned they have become “automatic.”
So if we slow down to focus on these “automated” actions, we can thwart those processes, tripping ourselves up.
So here’s what you need to do to minimize your stage fright:
Be well rehearsed…
…which means you should rehearse under performance-like pressure. Rehearsal transfers your words and ideas from the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for higher order conscious thought, to your cerebellum, which orchestrates the lightning fast motor activation needed to perform complex actions, like speaking to crowds, teaching your fingers to play a new piece of music, or learning your lines for a play.
Rehearsal is the work, performance is the play, and rehearsing under performance-like pressure acclimates you to the pressure of public speaking.
…The cerebellum is responsible for orchestrating lightning fast recollection of your words and intentions when you’re speaking, but it’s not reliable. You can’t knock on its door and say, “Ok, cerebellum, I’m ready to speak. Open up and do your thing.”
The science is clear. If you don’t want to choke, don’t monitor your own performance. Be well-rehearsed, trust yourself, and get on with it. Well-meaning people will tell you to slow down. Don’t do it. Dive in with both feet. It’ll keep your feet out of your mouth.
Give yourself one-word instruction…
…Psychologists have established that one-word instruction to yourself when you’re under pressure generates the best performance. Watch professional golfers. Once they line up the putt, they’re ready to send the ball toward the hole. Instructing your brain to remember to breathe, smile, stand up straight, slow down, and look at the audience will result in a disaster. Choose one word to be your guardian angel, something like, “Relax,” or “Fun,” or “Smooth.”
The most effective approaches imbue the performers with the feeling that they can handle any adversity.
But you don’t want to be over-confident. When you get to the front of the room and get hit with a thousand pairs of eyes, it can knock the stuffing out of you.
The bottom line? Ratchet up the pressure at your practice sessions. It’s the best way to avoid failing when it counts.
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