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.