Thriving on Stage Fright

Stage fright is a sickening, draining, sudden rush of terror that causes our hearts to hyper-beat.  Stage fright steals our composure and threatens to steal our credibility.  Stage fright makes us feel as if we’re about to die, right there on that cursed stage.  Stage fright causes us to shake and sweat, to stumble and stutter.  Stage fright attacks the strongest man as well as the weakest child.

The feelings associated with stage fright are unpleasant, but that does not mean we have to fight them.  Neither does it mean that we need to avoid them at all costs.  I recently heard an established Comedian recount in a radio interview that he has died on stage a number of times.  That gave me heart, for I realised that dying on stage is commonplace yet it does not signify the end.  Death on stage is nothing more than a temporary phenomenon.  It only becomes permanent if we never stand on stage again.

As a volunteer Speaker for Guide dogs I have experienced dying on stage.  I have been so terrified that my whole body quivers, the sweat pours off me and I cannot control my shaking voice.  Yet even on these occasions the talks were not disastrous.  I have been incredibly moved by the spontaneous generosity of some of the audiences who have witnessed my raw fear.  So it is fair to say that success cannot always be accurately measured by our own perceptions and feelings.  I might consider a talk to be a disaster because I experienced terror, but the outcome of the talk may be extremely positive.  .

Giving a presentation or lecture is very similar to doing stand-up comedy. Both Comedians and Speakers seek to get the audience on their side and then keep them interested and entertained.  An audience is like a blank sheet of paper, and it is up to us whether we leave it untouched or bring it to life.

Experiencing stage fright  may well lead people to think they can never stand up in front of an audience again.  But avoiding the unpleasantness of stage fright is no solution.  Equally if we become confident in Public Speaking it does not necessarily mean that stage fright will never return.  Accepting that stage fright is normal, temporary and indiscriminate might help to restore  self-belief.  Experiencing it does not signify failure or incompetence, but succumbing to it by running away from it allows the beast to continue its reign of terror.

Stage fright is powerful and emotional, but that visible emotion could possibly captivate an audience.  My shaking voice which I know to be a symptom of my terror, has been described as passionate and emotional by people listening, and at times it has moved them to tears.  Is it possible then that stage fright can  help us to stir the hearts of an audience, or to reach people in a way that we had not anticipated?

This week I gave two talks to two very different audiences.  Both times I experienced the familiar symptoms of terror beforehand, but even though I could hear my voice quivering, stage fright did not dominate either talk.  The adrenalin buzz which raced through me afterwards completely annihilated my memories of previous  stage deaths.  I know that stage fright may decide to suffocate me in future, but for the moment I am enjoying my exhilaration. 

To thrive on stage fright we need to face the monster head-on, allow it to roar and even knock us to the ground, but walk away afterwards knowing that it has not beaten us.

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My Phoenix will not let me die

I am not a particularly outgoing person, and three years ago you would have had to drag me into a room full of people.  Social ease does not come naturally to me.  Yet I have learned to present a confident persona largely as a result of my role as a volunteer Speaker.

When I trained with my Guide dog Trudy in 2008 I received the “Qualifying Pack” which all rookie Guide dog owners are given at the end of training.  One of the leaflets in this pack gave details about becoming a volunteer Speaker for Guide dogs.  Something stirred inside me and I wondered if I would be any good at it.  After all, I had started out at University wanting to be a Teacher.  I love the art of language, and to me a string of well-chosen words beats any fireworks display.  This  drive to express myself and communicate passionately with others left me in no doubt that I would end up being a Classics Teacher. 

But it was not to be.  Twenty years after my arrival at Oxford I found myself dwindling in a nursing home, afraid to be seen in public, unsure of who I was.  Losing my useful vision at the end of my first year as an undergraduate was the end of my world.   The disappointment of having to abandon my degree  left me in tatters, and I lost all hope of having a life.  The grief I felt took over my mind and dismantled my thoughts.  I was unable to function, and thus began my default career as a psychiatric patient.  I  seriously thought that I would never emerge whole again.  

But after many struggles which spanned twenty years I did emerge.   Somehow I reached the peak of the mountain, and my reward was Trudy.  Training with a Guide dog had been my dream since leaving Oxford.  I knew that a dog would free me from the confines of sight loss, so I had to get myself back on track.  At the time I did not anticipate that it would take so many years.  But Trudy was worth the wait.  When I trained with her I had been a resident in the nursing home for seven years, and never envisaged leaving.  Trudy literally led me out of the front door and showed me the world outside. 

So the leaflet in the Qualifying Pack renewed my sense of purpose and gave me direction.  I moved into my own flat and began to seize every opportunity to rekindle the life which had so nearly died inside me.  Could I really be a Speaker?  Why not!  I was extremely apprehensive, for my mental breakdown had stolen my confidence and given me a morbid fear of strangers.  Yet I knew that if I didn’t seize this chance I would probably never feel fulfilled.  I reasoned that even if it was disastrous, at least I would have given it my best shot.

I expected to have some training in Public Speaking before I was let loose on the public.  However this was not the case.  After registering as a volunteer for Guide dogs, six months later I received a phone call requesting me to give a talk at a nearby village Primary School.  I cannot properly describe the terror which took hold of me as the appointed day grew closer.  What was I thinking of?!  Me! The semi-reclusive blind woman with a cleft palate speech impediment, giving a talk to a schoolful of kids!  I always struggled being part of an audience, so how was I going to address one?

The dire scenarios tormented me for nights on end, but I forced myself to go through with it.  When the day came I was relieved to find that most eyes were fixed on Trudy throughout my talk.  I was speaking during Assembly to 90 children,  but thanks to Trudy the dreaded “spotlight effect” did not take hold of me for long.  When I finished my talk the children plied me with excited questions, and I felt so elated that I almost soared into the air.  I was alive and free! This first talk was sixteen months ago, and now I am averaging about three talks a month.  So in a very round-about way I have fulfilled my dream of becoming a Teacher.  The topic of Guide dogs is easily as thrilling as Classics. 

As I have grown more confident, my voice has ceased to vibrate uncontrollably as I’m speaking.  I forget that I have a cleft palate which affects my pronunciation of certain consonants.  Somehow I have learned to project out of myself, and the audiences I speak to rarely get to see the quaking nervous wreck inside the Speaker.  I would not say that every talk I give is a success.  Recently I came home convinced that my public speaking phase was over, and that I would never have the guts to speak in public again.  But I guess the Phoenix within me won’t let my courage die forever.  This week I gave another talk in Hereford, and thankfully I hit the right note with the audience.  The buzz from a well-received talk fires up your soul and you leap into the clouds feeling literally on top of the world.

One of my favourite books is Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis.  Zorba’s dance epitomises the phrase “Carpe Diem” – seize the day.  His love for the moment and the simple pleasures of life, together with his incredible passion for music, has always struck a deep chord within me.  Zorba knows what it means to be free, and is desperate to teach others the essence of freedom.  One day I shall visit Crete and when I get there I will dance like Zorba.  Sometimes it pays to leap out of your every day life and risk the unknown.  Uncertainty gives rise to adventure, self-discovery and possible fulfilment.   If it all goes wrong and you find yourself heading over a cliff-edge, then you can always turn round and go back the way you came.

Guide Dogs Week 2011

It’s Guide Dogs Week 2011 (1st – 9th October).  This has got to be one of my most active weeks this year!  My volunteering for Guide dogs has taken on a slightly manic aspect.  I find myself skipping breakfast and flying towards the bus stop with a grumbling Trudy who, like me, is not wired up to deal with early morning starts.  As we sit panting on the bus Trudy’s noises of discontent gain her the sympathy of our fellow passengers.  I smile haplessly and hope we won’t miss the stop, which is a frequent occurrence.

Luckily this week has been good so far as regards buses.  No memorable food crimes have been committed by the hoovering hound, and nothing untoward has happened.

It’s a difficult time for fundraising.  Spare cash is almost non-existent, so standing in a supermarket or Town centre with a collecting bucket is not as profitable as it was this time last year.  Charities are all competing with each other for scraps from the master’s table.  Some will inevitably not survive this barren period.  But this does not make fundraising any less rewarding.  For one thing, I am extremely fortunate having Trudy to help me.

When we are doing street collections we are not allowed to shake our buckets or ask people to donate money, so it can be quite disheartening watching a stream of people pass by seemingly oblivious to the fact that we are there.  Trudy however, does not have to abide by any such rules.  She locks onto the eye of a passer-by and draws that person towards me, begging him or her to donate to the cause.  She rolls onto her back and folds her limbs in half just asking for her tummy to be tickled.  Many people cannot walk by a prostrate Labrador who appears to be in the grip of sublime rapture.  When Trudy does her fundraising roll (as I’ve dubbed it this week) my bucket sings with coins!  Of course I explain to people that I have never trained Trudy to do this, but it is a fantastic fundraiser!  Trudy laps up the compliments like a cabaret artist.

So although the totals are down, the rewards have not diminished.  Bucket collections have always been characterised by fits and starts.  Just as my legs start to go numb and my back aches to distraction I become immersed in conversation with a friendly person, and the coins clink into the bucket which is extremely invigorating.  From somewhere, a new wave of energy emerges and I can finish my two-hour stint.  (As I’m with Trudy, I’m only allowed to do two hours at a time – which is just as well, as Trudy’s head would become bald from all the patting and stroking).

As charities are being hit hard at the moment, it’s even more important to keep up a high public profile.  It means working harder, but getting noticed increases your chances of raising funds.  This is one of the many reasons I love being a Speaker for Guide dogs.  Word of mouth is a very powerful fundraiser.  I think it helps people to relate to Guide dogs the charity if they can see an actual Guide dog and listen to the personal experience of a Guide dog owner.  Trudy loves being the centre of attention and as she’s such a vocal dog she usually makes the audience laugh at some point, which helps me no end!

For instance when I tell people that it costs approximately £49,000 to train and maintain each working Guide dog – Trudy often agrees with an expressive groan, as if to say “Because I’m worth it”.  I’m so lucky to have such an ally.  Trudy makes my talks real, and interrupts me which keeps them “live”.  I never lose sight of the fact that if it wasn’t for Trudy, I would never have become a volunteer and a whole chunk of life would have been missed.

My quest is to raise funds for more Muttleys to be trained as Guide dogs, and as the charity receives no government funding I think I’m in for an awful lot of bucket collecting….

http://www.justgiving.com/Claire-Rush0

Nerves are not always the enemy

So many people have a fear of public speaking (or glossophobia). The notorious wedding gaffs, the blundering after-dinner soliloquy, politicians who pulverise their careers in a single speech. The list of public speaking nightmares is endless. Many of us know people either directly or indirectly who have got blind drunk just to face “the mob”.

It makes no difference whether “the mob” is three people in a back room or a worldwide audience listening via satellite.  An unknown audience looms like a demon, waiting to devour you the minute you falter. Yet oddly enough,this vulnerability – the moment in which you hesitate and see your speech assuming the shape of a large pear – is what can connect you to your audience.  They see that you are human, and most of them understand.  A polished speech delivered with effortless confidence might well get a good reception. But a speech which comes from the heart will often be more memorable.

I do not consider myself to be a first-class public speaker. When I became a volunteer speaker for Guide dogs I had no idea whether the experience would destroy my confidence or increase it.. Something inside me relished the challenge, but the thought of actually delivering a speech churned my stomach. I had no previous training or experience, so when I received a phone call last Summer asking me to give a talk at a local primary school I was terrified.

The terror manifested itself physically.  Standing in front of the entire school,  my voice wobbled, my hands shook, my heart clapped against my chest, and the sweat poured down my face. My guide dog Trudy was nonplussed, and lay in a quiet heap at my feet, steady as ever. As my nerves escalated I began to falter.  Suddenly the realisation that 90 children were hanging on my every word  sent me into a paroxysm of panic. They were all listening to me! (This is apparently known as the “spotlight effect”). What if I messed it up? What if I couldn’t finish?  I was speaking without notes as I’m not a braillist, so everything I needed was inside my head.  The same head that was swimming with half-formed words and misshapen thoughts. I froze for a good few seconds. The silence thundered in my ears. This was make or break, and I knew it.  But somehow I managed to regain my composure. The conviction that I was about to die became less of an issue. My voice still wobbled like a de-railing train, but I made it to the end. What’s more, I got a positive reception from the children and teachers. This was my first building block in the confidence tower. When the talk was over, the adrenalin buzzed through me and I felt truly elated. The relief was indescribable. Afterwards I wondered what had made my first talk a success. After all, my nerves were bubbling for all to see. Yet this seemed to bother me more than my audience. They listened and responded to me, they felt my passion and they knew it was real.

I have given several talks since, mainly to adult audiences.  My nerves still plague me and I cringe at the sound of my vibrato voice.  But at least the fear is very familiar now, I know exactly what to expect.  I also know that the fear won’t get any worse, it won’t kill me and it’s  never forced me to abandon a talk and walk out.  I would say we’re evenly matched, my fear and I.  The feedback I’ve received has shown me that being nervous does not necessarily alienate an audience.  They hear the emotion in your voice, they see the raw struggle as you shake and stammer, and they’re alongside you when you win the battle.

Being a volunteer speaker has given me fantastic experience.  Talking about guide dogs and GDBA does not attract antagonists – quite the opposite in fact.  Speaking to largely sympathetic audiences has allowed my confidence to steadily grow.  My experience has taught me some valuable lessons in how to connect with an audience, young or old.  The following tips may be useful.

1 R  Relevance – Make sure your speech is relevant, know your audience, find out what they want

2 I  Interaction – Involving your audience keeps them focussed and enables you to understand them

3  P  Preparation – Make sure you’ve researched your talk and established which points are important

4  P  Practise – Rehearse your speech, read it out loud over and over again and get the rhythm right

5  L  Length – Find out how long you’re required to talk for and time yourself beforehand

6  E  Enthusiasm – Enthusiasm is contagious, it defines your delivery.  Speak from your heart

One final tip: humour is a great ice-breaker and if you can laugh it will dissipate your tension as well as add to your audience’s enjoyment.