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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Standing Still

Standing still.  Stopping.  Preserving your energy.  Feeling at peace.  Feeling fear.  Paralysed.  Deep in thought.  Stuck.  Lost.  Exhausted.  Inhaling freedom.  Taking stock.  Musing.  Listening.  Planning.   Having a break.  Hiding.  Waiting.  Dying.  Observing.  Falling in love.  Smiling.  In pain.  Breathing.  Arresting.  Inspired.  Confused.  Reflecting,  Enraptured.  Stunned.  Intoxicated.  Numb.  At a loss.  Wondering.  Sniffing.  Holding.  Being held.  Reaching safety.  Panicking.  Eating.  Wounded.  Grounded.  Crying.  Standing still.

Standing still is life and death.  It sharpens our senses and calms our minds.  It intensifies our emotions and shuts down our defenses.  It is survival and capture.  It is both passive and active.   Standing still marks the beginning and the end.  It involves feeling and thinking.  It is when we take control but also when we give up.  Standing still has a kaleidoscope of meanings.

Today I stood still and waited for a dog’s teeth to bite into my skin.  It had iron legs and its breath was baking hot.  I covered my head and stood still while it pranced around me growling and snapping.  Its doorstop paws imprinted themselves on my chest.  I was gripped by fear.  Time stood still with me, but it was not my ally.  I waited for the first stab of pain.  I could hear my heart thumping in my ears and I smelt death.  

But the dog did not bite me.  In the end it scampered away, and I felt the comforting presence of Trudy by my side.  My gentle Labrador brushed away my terror.  I inhaled the biscuit-scent of her fur and sighed with relief.  Slowly my panic subsided and I lowered my hand to stroke Trudy’s silk-purse ears.  As I stood still she licked my fingers and the familiar roll of her tongue dispelled my remaining anxieties.

After a moment Trudy moved away to investigate something new.  Although she was nearby and I could hear the jingling of her collar-bells, I was conscious of my vulnerability. Motionless,  I listened for danger, and jumped as a group of people walked by calling their dog.  I prepared myself for attack, but nothing happened.  They greeted me warmly, so I smiled.  We briefly exchanged doggy-talk which made me chuckle.  Then Trudy came bounding back to me when she spied me retrieving a tit-bit from my pocket.                  

Minutes later I was alone again but this time I felt at peace.  The strong breeze rushed through me refreshing my lungs and making me feel glad to be alive.  Standing still I reflected upon my transformation.  I seemed to have travelled along the spectrum of thoughts and emotions.  Each of my senses had been stretched to the limit.

It could have turned out very differently.  I cannot say whether my fear was justified but I know my head was clanging with danger claxons.  In Life’s great scheme this was a minor event, yet it has made me even more conscious of my desperate fight for survival.  Standing still has enabled me to consider just who I am and where I am heading.  It has reminded me that I am human.  I cannot control my fate, yet I can control my actions.