Performance anxiety, stage fright, nerves, butterflies, brain freezes are more common than you think. Estimates place it as high as 73% of the population experience glossophobia (the fear of public speaking) and it is one of the highest experienced phobias in the developed world.
Commonly, we accept the explanation that performance anxiety is part of the human fight and flight and freeze response. In that when we are separated from our tribe, even to the extent of standing in front of your tribe and not amongst them, our nervous system engages its emergency action plan: rapid heart rate, fast upper thoracic breathing, lightheadedness, shaking limbs and fingers, dry mouth and an inability to respond at cognitive capacity (freeze): all of these response measures signal for us to get out of there quickly.
What an awful state of being to endure, add a hearty dose of inner critic and it is any wonder that this is often touted as the number one fear for professionals.
Whilst we can rationalise the cause and effect science behind this, what is most important is how we develop strategies to move through this in the moment it is happening?
Firstly, there is not a one-size fits all approach. Like so many life-skills it takes practising different strategies and reflecting on what works best for you. It is also helpful to consider that our nervous system is not going to disappear with the swish of a magic wand, it is after all, vital for our survival. However, there is an alternative. In the performing arts we suffer performance anxiety just as much as any other industry, yet we know that when we can collaborate with our nervous system, is when the magic happens. The blend of energy, connection and excitement makes a presentation a living moment. So, let's look at how we can manage and harness the power of our nervous system.
Here are just three of my favourite strategies:
Strategy One: Breathe Breathe Breathe - Practice deep diaphragmatic breathing, through an app or a technique. A basic technique you could try is by placing a hand on your belly to monitor the rise and fall of the breath. Then follow the 4:2:6 technique - Inhale for the count of 4, pause at the top of the breath for 2 and exhale for 6. This quickly reverses the sympathetic nervous system response, signaling to your brain that you are in control. Whilst this will calm you down in the moment, it is through regular daily practice that muscle memory engages and adjusts the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. For it is the abundance of carbon-dioxide in the body, which is a result from rapid upper thoracic breathing, that brings on the effects of anxiety. Try this breathing for 2 minutes several times a day.
Strategy Two: Warm-up your body and your voice before a speech or presentation or even a demanding video conference. Release tension in the voice and shoulders. Gentle humming and stretching will help you realign anxious tension towards excitement. Even going for a walk around the block and speaking your words out loud will allow the muscle memory to activate. A performer would never go on stage without warming up.
Strategy Three: Become audience focused. Your job as a speaker is to serve your audience. When we focus on what their needs are, we stop analysing ourselves, and we are able to get on with the task at hand. Before getting up to speak, simply remind yourself that you are there to offer your audience a solution. How do you want them to feel and what do you want them to do? One of my all-time favourite insights on stage fright is by the revolutionary director and Theatre innovator Voila Spolin (1963) in her book Improvisation for the Theatre. Stage Fright occurs by, “Placing the audience as viewers or judges; fear of exposure, when the audience is ‘part of the game’ stage fright leaves.
So, the next time you start to feel anxious about an upcoming presentation or Zoom call, try ‘collaborating with your nerves’, rather than trying to control them.
Coach & author bio: With a diverse background in performance and feature film development, Aimee Foster works as voice, performance & development coach, creative arts educator and voice-over artist, linking content with meaning. Aimee coaches our Personal Brand team to deliver with authenticity and clarity.