Guide on the Side – Stage Fright: Performer’s Friend or Foe?

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries’ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities. Always open to new ideas, Marie can be reached at: [email protected].

Does stage fright limit your activities? Do you wonder why you get it and others do not? Do the polished presenters you see at seminars and conferences know some special tricks?

Take heart. You are not the only one spooked by performance fright. Actors, singer, musicians, dancers, and athletes are frequently afflicted with the same syndrome. Biographies of well known celebrities often reveal continuing and acute stage fright even after decades of recognition and success. As for a quick fix, please stop your search for magic pills, homeopathic remedies or beta blockers now. Low-tech, anti-stage fright technology has been around a long time. Master the three parts: generalized knowledge, physical skills and positive attitude, and you will turn the fearsome godzilla into a friend.

Generalized Knowledge

  • Almost everyone experiences stage fright at some time. You are not unique. The polished speakers you see have learned to take control of the stage fright experience.
  • There are stages of stage fright. It is like a continuum. At one end, there is simple excitement with adrenaline preparing the performer to excel. At the other end, there is a near death experience. Somewhere in the middle is a cross over point. You need to recognize when you are approaching your crossover point (it is not the same for all people or for all performance events) and know how to take immediate remedial action.
  • Some people find that facing an audience of thousands is nothing, but performing before a small group turns them into jelly. Others find an audience of friends more intimidating than strangers. Each performer has a unique profile of bugaboos.
  • Preparation is absolutely necessary. This includes your material, audience/event analysis and the physical setting. You may know the subject but do you know the audience and the significance of this occasion? Not knowing is a cause of anxiety.
  • Practice by video or audio recording yourself which helps to visualize performance and to develop muscle memory. Researchers have confirmed that use of video tape in preparation for public speaking or singing reduces anxiety and improves performance. (See “Stage Fright and Performance, Byron D. Myers II, Missouri Western State College, December 5, 1995.” ) TRIPLL attendees in the Teaching Research in Private Law Libraries programs sponsored by Lexis/Nexis found that they looked much better than they anticipated when viewing themselves and that they were able to critique their performance objectively for needed changes.

  • Develop an inconspicuous personal relaxation ritual. Singers, musicians and dancers can often do this behind the scenes but presenters are usually on the stage before their performance and would look a bit odd doing tai chi, yoga or standing on their head.
  • Read some of the excellent books on presentations and stage fright. I recommend High-Impact Presentations – A Multimedia Approach by Jo Robbins, who spoke at the 1997 AALL Annual meeting, “Walking on Water: Making a Quality Presentation.” There are also titles specifically on stage fright. Find them by searching one of the mega-bookstores online. Be aware that to acquire physical know-how you must look for a different kind of learning experience. Passively reading (no matter how good the material) will get you knowledge but not skills. You can not learn to tango by reading a book.

Physical skills

  • Public speaking is a physical activity. Stage fright is an emotional reaction which restricts physical abilities. To unlearn the unwanted physical reactions associated with stage fright, you must practice performance before an audience. Once it not enough. Mastery requires distributed and incremental learning. For these reasons, I recommend joining Toastmasters.Other options are to engage a professional coach or enroll in a class or seminar. Locate them on the Web.
  • According to research on muscle memory reported in a recent issue of Swim Magazine, it takes up to six hours to move the memory of a new physical skill to a permanent storage site in the brain. This is for non-emotionally charged physical skills. It takes longer to unlearn an emotionally charged activity and to replace it with a neutral skill. If you want to retain the new technique: don’t try to learn another new physical skill for the following six hours, or you may “erase” the newly learned material.
  • Scientists are beginning to find out that much of our intelligence in outside the brain buried in our cells. With practice you can access other kinds of intelligence and appear physically relaxed, enthusiastic and confident even though you are not.

Positive attitude

  • Mold your attitude around all your successes. Remember what success feels like, what it looks like. Even when you perform in a less than stellar fashion, remember the parts you did that were outstanding.
  • People overwhelmed with stage fright have negative attitudes. They “what if..” themselves into a total tizzy by imagining what could go wrong. Or they develop a litany of other negatives. Replace negative attitudes with positive ones “I have a lot to share with this audience.” “This is going to be fun.” “The audience looks really alive.”
  • Observe how competitive athletes interviewed before or after an event often say “I am going to do my best” or “I am just going to go out there and have fun.” It is a positive attitude that gets the competitive ice skaters up after a fall and continuing their program as if nothing happened. Successful athletes study sports psychology and positive attitude is key.
  • Performance is an act of faith. You have to believe your body will perform what it has practiced whether it is a speech, a song, a dance or an athletic competition.
  • A positive attitude will lead you to seek any help you may need to improve. A negative attitude shackles your personal and professional life.

To illustrate how toxic and insidious a negative attitude can be, let me share a personal story. Early in my career, I was President of the UC Berkeley Library Staff Association and had what should have been the pleasure of introducing Lawrence Clark Powell, UCLA Librarian and founder of the UCLA Library School, to speak at a staff meeting. Larry was a polished speaker and a distinguished librarian, while I saw myself as a terrified peon. Fortunately, I had pertinent material to use for an introduction gleaned from hearing Larry speak previously. I drafted and re-drafted and finally honed my introduction to six sentences. How would it sound and how could I remember it?

Listening to my husband’s hi-fi system, it occurred to me to record my remarks. My first attempt sounded better than I thought it would but there were definite improvements to be made. About the eleventh try, I heard myself sounding assured, enthusiastic, and relaxed. Great! I played and re-played that tape–on the machine and in my mind. I woke on “the day” with my adrenaline pumped wildly. I could hardly breathe and the meeting was hours away. When Larry arrived to my great surprise, I could see he was as nervous as I was. Oddly, this caused me to relaxed a little.

Though I was still a bundle of nerves my introduction went off without a hitch, almost as if I had pushed the “play” button and the words rolled out of my mouth. Larry, who had seemed as nervous as a cat earlier, responded to the introduction by morphing into the speaking pro that he was. The meeting was an unqualified success.

What did I learn from this experience? Not what I should have. I had been on the stage and the fright had not been my undoing. I should have recognized that it had befriended me. The early panic attack caused me to prepare. Recording myself primed me for hearing my voice, tone and pace. The adrenaline helped me put an “edge” my performance. I saw that even experienced presenters get pre-performance jitters and that these miraculously disappear once the speaker gets on stage.

So what was my problem? Bad attitude. Instead of dwelling on the positives I dwelt on the negatives and saw stage fright as a monster that I never wanted to meet again because who knows what might happen next time. For twenty years, I avoided public speaking and when I finally did summon up some courage to give it a try, I exhibited worse than typical stage fright symptoms, I started breaking my teeth by grinding them at night.

It took my dentist to provide the insight that I needed to join Toastmasters before I lost all of my teeth. Good advice but what the dentist didn’t tell me and what I see now is that stage fright can be either your friend or foe. It is your story. You are the director and the star. It is your call how you want the story to end.

To purchase, click on title:

I Can See you Naked: A Fearless Guide to Making Great Presentations, by Ron Hoff / Andrews and McMeel, 1988.

High-Impact Presentations – A Multimedia Approach, by Jo Robbins.

Posted in: Guide on the Side, Presentation Skills