Conquering Stage Fright: What Opera Taught Me about Public Speaking

stage fright
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Performance anxiety, or stage fright, is a common experience for people who perform or speak publicly. When I was an opera singer people would often tell me I seemed calm and relaxed. I wasn’t! I was always nervous before performances – even more so before auditions. My heart would beat fast, my breathing would be fast and shallow, and sometimes my legs would even shake. Stage fright was a fact of life for me, so I had to develop ways to cope with it.

Now, many years later, I speak instead of sing for a living. It is not exactly the same – instead singing from memory I speak improvisational from notes – but the performance anxiety is similar.

Performance anxiety comes in many flavors, but I like to break it down into three categories: physical, mental, and temporal.

Physical

Physical performance anxiety is how your body reacts, regardless of how you are feeling emotionally. Some examples:

  • Shallow breathing
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Stomach upset or intestinal pain
  • Sleepiness or tiredness

When I have bad anxiety, I can feel the adrenalin hitting my body and running through my veins like ice. When you have performance anxiety, your body responds to the perception of a life or death situation by physically preparing to fight or run.

Mental

Stage fright, as its name implies, is fear. How the mind addresses fear is very individual. For example:

  • Imagining “worst-case” scenarios
  • Compulsively preparing yourself for everything that might go wrong.
  • Anticipating what your intended audience will think or say about you.
  • Worrying that you are not prepared enough and reviewing your material over and over again.
  • Feeling mentally fuzzy or spacey, or even experiencing memory lapses.

Temporal

Sometimes when your body and mind are producing a fight or flight reaction to stress, your sense of time becomes altered or distorted. It is a hard sensation to describe, but I feel as if my body (and mouth) is running on a different track from my mind, and they get out of whack. I may lose my place, or lose track of what I am saying (this is why having good notes is important). Sometimes it feels as if time has sped up or slowed down.

I once worked with a conductor who conducted performances at a significantly slower tempo than he rehearsed them, and then would yell at the choir for breathing (gasping!) in all the wrong places. I think he was unaware that he suffered from performance-induced time distortion.

Another interesting thing about time distortion – you may experience it without any of the other symptoms of stage fright. You may not feel particularly anxious or worried but still have a distorted sense of time when you are speaking. I worked with a colleague who would take up most of the available time for group presentations because his sense of time was distorted. No matter how many times we rehearsed our presentation with strict timing, he would wander off topic and throw the rest of the presentation off.

Prepare, Practice, Relax

So how do we deal with the fact that our bodies are trying to get us to fight or run from a physical threat that doesn’t actually exist? If I could only use one word to answer this question, it would be Practice. I learned this the hard way.

When I was studying opera at a conservatory, all the singers had to perform for each other once a semester in a performance class. It was, and still is, the most nerve-wracking performance I have ever done. It was scarier than teaching my first college class, speaking at a national conference, or singing at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. It was terrifying because I was singing for my peers, who were my fiercest competitors and worst critics. It was almost impossible not to think about what they might be whispering to each other in the audience of the auditorium while I sang. (Probably because the rest of the semester, I was in the audience doing the same thing.)

My voice teacher urged me to get up and sing every week until I had conquered my fear of the dreaded VPL (Voice Performance Lab). Since this sounded as appealing as having a weekly root canal, I refused. When I started graduate school I realized I would soon be facing much more frightening audiences at national opera company auditions. So, I took his advice and sang every week for the better part of the semester.

Guess what? It worked. By the third or fourth performance my fear was gone and I could enjoy myself, and more importantly, perform at my best. My mind’s insistence that this psychological death situation was physical had waned and left my body more under control. My breathing was even and deep, I no longer worried constantly about making mistakes, I had fewer memory lapses, and my performance was much more consistent. Practice may not make us perfect, but it makes us much less fearful.

Practice is something you can do alone – I often run through lectures out loud in my office – but it also needs to be done for others to be truly effective. Practicing in front of others can simulate some of the nervousness you may feel for the real performance (which will help reduce your fear at the main event), and you can solicit valuable feedback about how you came across, how organized and coherent your presentation was, and where you need to improve.

My number two piece of advice is Prepare. This is not the same as practice; it’s what you do before practicing. When I was singing professionally, it meant memorizing the music and words, translating foreign languages and memorizing the translation, researching the context of the piece, and examining the harmonic and melodic structure. As a public speaker, it means being knowledgeable about my topic, organized, and compelling.

Preparation is comprised of four main elements:

Researching and understanding your topic thoroughly.
Creating a cohesive, structured presentation that flows well.
Editing your visual presentation and notes so they are free of errors, redundancy, and fit within your allotted time.
Soliciting feedback – have a reader look at your PowerPoint to check for grammatical and spelling errors, clarity, and visual impact.

Being well prepared will help reduce your anxiety before you speak by making you more confident and assured. It will also help you adapt if something unexpected happens – a change in venue, a difficult question from the audience, or any of the other many things that can change at the last moment. Some audiences prefer to listen and absorb while interacting minimally. Other audiences ask questions, challenge ideas or data, and are comfortable with sharing information with the speaker and other audience members. While it is important to have an idea of the culture of the audience in advance, thorough preparation will help you adjust on the spot if needed.

Many performers use rituals to help them focus and relax. A ritual can be elaborate and extend days before, or it might just be some deep breathing and a little quiet time. When I had to do national auditions I kept myself on a strict regimen – no alcohol, lots of practice and rest, and several hours to focus, review, and meditate before my performance. I tried to clear my schedule so I have very little interaction with others the day of a performance as well. How you choose to focus your mind and relax your body depends entirely on your experience and typical anxiety level. Before teaching a class, I usually come early, prep my classroom, get some water, and review my notes. However, my anxiety level is relatively low when I teach. Before a big speaking engagement I may take time during the week to get a massage, exercise, make sure I get enough sleep, and give myself several hours to focus my mind and gather review my materials. I also use breathing techniques to combat the physical effects of stage fright and meditation techniques to discipline my mind away from excessive worry and anticipation. There are many ways to approach both of these activities.

Pranayama is the yogic practice of breath control. Many yoga teachers incorporate it into yoga classes and you can read about it in books and online. Different breathing exercises have different effects – raising energy, relaxing, lowering the heart rate – experiment with as many as necessary to find what works best for you. One technique I find useful is called Ujjayi Pranyama. It consists of taking slow breaths in and out through the nose, while closing the throat slightly in order to make a little bit of sound. My yoga teacher calls it “Darth Vader Breathing” because that’s what it sounds like. For me, it has the effect of calming me down without making me sleepy. It also helps regulate my breath if I am breathing shallowly because of anxiety or anticipation.

Meditation techniques also vary. Meditation takes practice, but it can have a profound effect on your ability to focus your mind. There are many books and Internet resources available on meditation, and most cities have meditation centers where you can receive instruction for free. The central idea behind meditation is to observe your ongoing inner dialogue rather than engage in it. It is particularly useful if you have a tendency to worry or imagine worst-case scenarios when you are under pressure. With practice, you can disengage your mind from ruminating about the past and future and focus your energy on the present moment – a very useful ability when you are preparing for and engaging in a presentation.

Single-pointed meditation consists of focusing all your attention on one thing – a mantra or word, your breath, or an object. When you observe your mind wandering away from your point, label the thoughts “thinking”, and go back to observation. It sounds easy, but it can be very difficult – especially when your body and mind are stressed. However, this practice helps you emotionally detach from the chattering mind – which is very helpful if you are feeling fearful. I try to find a quiet space to sit before a talk – my car if nothing else is available – and take at least ten minutes to breathe and clear my mind using these techniques.

Attention to these three concepts of preparation, practice, and relaxation can make all the difference in your ability to be a powerful and effective presenter. They work in concert with one another – remove one and you will be less effective. Good presentations and speaking take planning and foresight. Only through reducing the ambiguity and anxiety associated with performance do we bypass the mind’s fight or flight reaction to performance anxiety and bring the full force of our knowledge and experience to bear for our audiences.

Michelann Quimby is a career coach, mentor, writer, speaker, and adjunct professor in Austin, Texas. She is currently pursuing graduate research in the fields of organizational psychology and feminist leadership development.

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