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Overcoming Stage Fright

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Everybody gets it. Everybody can get over it.

Third-degree stage fright manifests itself as a revved-up heart beat, elevated blood pressure, a flushed face, and trembling hands. When you have stage fright, you're experiencing a reaction shared by your cave-dwelling ancestors. Experts call it the flight-or-fight reaction. When a cave dweller saw a saber-toothed tiger, adrenaline pumped into his blood stream and his body prepared itself to scamper up a tree or, if necessary, to do battle.

Most people have the same kind of reaction the first time they face an audience. Here are some physical and mental tricks you can use to control this reaction:

  • Keep in mind that the audience is not a tiger. Audience members are disposed to like you. They want to relax almost as much as you do. They want you to succeed because that means they will be entertained. In other words, the audience is on your side.
  • Because your stage fright reaction is a right-brain function—instinctive and emotional—counter it with left-brain activity. Count or work a numbers problem in your head. Think about how your talk is organized and how you've marshaled the various points.
  • Breathe. Fitness guru Pat Croce recommends inhaling deeply through the nose and exhaling through the mouth.
  • Smile. Just the act of smiling causes chemical changes in the body that can help you relax and feel more confident.
Getting Ready

When preparing to give a talk or, for that matter, when preparing for an important one-on-one meeting, ask yourself four questions:

Live and Learn

People form impressions of one another in the following ways: visually (how you look) 55 percent; vocally (how your voice sounds) 38 percent; verbally (what you say) 7 percent. First impressions are formed within the first four to seven seconds.

  1. Who am I? Does this person (audience) know you? What is your relationship, if any? How do you want your audience to perceive you? What attire would be most appropriate to communicate your role?
  2. Where am I? The physical space will determine how you should use your voice and gestures, and whether you will need a microphone. Find out what audiovisual equipment is available and who will be running it. Think about what you will do if the equipment fails to function as expected. (It so often does.)
  3. To whom am I speaking and what do they expect from me? Why are they here, and what are their expectations? Do audience members share any characteristics? Do they have a specific point of view concerning you or your topic?
  4. What do I want to accomplish? To welcome, to instruct, to motivate, to persuade? Do you want to ask for a raise, explain your situation, or praise another person?
Mind Your P's and Q's

Let's face it—some people just can't tell a joke, and shouldn't. If your attempts at humor are frequently met with quizzical looks or strained smiles, leave jokes out of your speeches even if you think the joke is hilariously funny and your delivery cunningly droll.

The Delivery

Here are some insider tips on public speaking from experienced speakers:

  • Speak while standing whenever possible.
  • Adjust your language to the audience. Don't talk down to anyone, but do tailor your language and your references to the audience (for example, are you speaking to engineers or to artists?). A young audience has a shorter attention span than an older audience does, so you will need to sprinkle more spice into your talk—gestures, vivid images, jokes. Male audiences respond more to visual images; women, to verbal images.
  • People like people who are like them, so try to make a connection by mentioning early something that connects you to the audience. For instance, you could say, “Some people think that, because we are volunteers and are not being paid, that our work is somehow easier or somehow less important. We all know just how wrong that is, don't we?”
  • Remember that you are more important than the material. The people are in the audience because they want to hear what you have to say and how you present the information. Otherwise, they could stay home and read the report.
  • Decide what points you want to make. Don't try for more than four major points in a 20-minute speech. The usual technique is to make a point, give a descriptive example, then remake the point.
  • Speak with feeling. Try to communicate your enthusiasm for your topic to your audience. Keep your head up and speak clearly.
  • Control voice volume. Inexperienced speakers have a tendency to shout or to get louder as they go along. Think in terms of projecting. You can project your normal tone of voice without shouting and without sounding like a sideshow barker.
  • Take your time. Another common error of inexperienced speakers is a tendency to speak quickly, as if every second has to be filled with information.
  • Avoid rambling and repeating.
  • When you've finished, if there is no question-and-answer session, say thank you and sit down. Don't wave or otherwise acknowledge applause.
  • If you are having a question-and-answer period, say so and raise your hand briefly to indicate the protocol for asking questions. Restate and, if necessary, rephrase questions. Don't say “good question.” This gives the impression you are judging the questions.
  • Don't refer to the questioner by name unless you are prepared to address everyone in the room by name.


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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Etiquette © 2004 by Mary Mitchell. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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