Guide on the Side – How to Turn Stage Fright into Peak Performance

(Archived April 1, 1998)

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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].

Relaxation is critical for speakers. It removes excessive tension which negatively impacts the respiratory, digestive, muscular and circulatory systems, and generally impairs performance by literally tying up the body in knots. The audience forms an impression in the first few seconds as the speaker approaches the speaking arena. What the audience wants to see is a person who appears confident and at ease. Nervous people make them uncomfortable. The relaxed presenter connects with the audience and starts positive vibes flowing immediately.

In an earlier column, I suggested developing a personal relaxation ritual to reduce stage fright. Here are five ways to stop being a wimp presenter and adopt positive energy training. You need to realize that pressure is something you put on yourself. You have the power to rid yourself of doubt and fear by acquiring a repertoire of “inner game” techniques: relaxation exercises, stance, imagery and visualization, smell and attire.

Relaxation Exercises

Relaxation exercises are useful to ward off last minute anxiety attacks while you are waiting at the head table to “go on.” Usually you are seated at a table with a cloth that hides your lower body, so you can concentrate on exercises that involve the feet, legs and lower torso.

  • Concentrate on a toe. Consciously relax it then move on to another toe. When you have done all ten, continue to the feet and ankles until you work your way to your waist. A variation on this exercise is to tense each body part briefly and then relax it.
  • Deep and slow breathing exercises. These can be combined with the above.

More active exercises can be done when you are not on stage and there is no audience:

  • Stretches of all kinds
  • Shake limbs (feet, legs, hands, arms) one at a time
  • Shoulder and neck rolls
  • Arm swings
  • Yoga
  • Tai chi

The literature and Web sources on stress, presentations, and sports performance are voluminous and contain many more relaxation exercises, but these are the most common.


Your stance tells the audience how you feel. Upward movements convey enthusiasm and energy. Downward movements suggest weariness and discouragement. You communicate via your posture before you even say the first words. You want to avoid shuffling to the lectern as if you anticipated an execution.

Most people learn how to smile to their advantage for the camera at any early age. They can do it on cue. You can learn to assume a relaxed stance on cue the same way you learned to smile–by practice and feedback. Stance includes your walk. Start by determining what is your relaxed stance by observing yourself in the mirror or on video. After you learn the stance, learn the related walk. Actually, this is fairly easy because most of the time you are unconsciously relaxed. All you have to do is observe the “look and feel” of the stance so you can do it when you want to. When you walk to the lectern or podium, your gait should have a spring in it and suggest “I am glad to be here.”

You can achieve a confident stance by keeping your knees unlocked, putting one foot slightly ahead of the other, distributing your weight on both feet, keeping your shoulders back, lifting the chin up and keeping the arms at the side with the elbows relaxed.

Notice your stance and walk as you enter a room in everyday life. Ask for feedback from your friends and family. Remember, you cannot not communicate. Your body language transmits your emotions. Verbal language conveys words and thoughts. If your body and verbal language contradict each other, the audience will tend to believe your body signals.

Imagery and Visualization

Imagery and visualization are processes that form pictures in our minds like creating a movie in your head. When you create a “mind movie” with yourself excelling at an activity, you remove any negative script and harness all your positive energy.

Most writers do not distinguish between imagery and visualization but in “Visualization and Imagery” in Swimming Technique, Jan-Mar 1988, Rayma Ditson-Sommer makes a distinction between the two and finds most people do one better than the other. The two activities take place in separate parts of the brain. Imagery is how the body “feels”–a tactile sensation and is measured by Theta brain waves. By contrast visualization is “seeing” the activity and is associated with Alpha brain waves. Most visualization experts include auditory input (how it sounds) and even olfactory (how it smells).

Extensive research into athletic and presentation performance has confirmed that:

  • The brain and nervous system cannot distinguish between an event that was keenly imagined and one that actually occurred.
  • When a person is clearly visualizing a movement or athletic routine, all the nerves involved in making the muscles move are stimulated significantly.
  • Visualization enhances performance.

When you can visualize and imagine your performance clearly, doing it for real is like deja vu. For speakers, this includes seeing yourself as you appear in a favorite photograph where you look fabulous and exude confidence or hearing your voice on an audio tape.

The night before a performance is a likely time to get an “panic attack,” especially if travel and jet lag are involved. Take along a tape recorder with a tape of yourself delivering your speech for reassurance and another tape with relaxation sounds or soothing music to lull you to sleep.

Sweet Smell of Success

Certain odors are known to relax the body and are used by hospitals to relax patients before undergoing exploratory procedures that might make them nervous such as an MRI. Some of these are chamomile, jasmine, lavender and pine. You can buy these natural aromatic oils in specialty shops. Many of these shops also sell small vials of combinations of aromas labelled “Relaxation.” Put the aroma on a kleenex and sniff it inconspicuously. Aromatherapy is often beneficial for falling asleep. Using smell to relax is different than using it for visualization. For instance, an equestrian might “visualize” the smell of the horse as part of “seeing” her event.


“What shall I wear?” is the perennial female question. Men seem less concerned, but it is an important consideration for them as well. What you wear should make you feel secure, confident, and assured. We all have, or certainly should have, an outfit that makes us “feel good” and that we know makes us look good. This is what you want to wear. If you buy a new outfit immediately before a speaking engagement, you risk feeling physically uncomfortable because the garment restricts your movement. Maybe the wool scratches your neck or the fit across the shoulders or around the waist is too tight or the sleeves are too long or the fabric is full of static electricity. You want to be able to put on your clothes, know you look good, and then forget about what you have on. Consider the temperature also. It may be 99 degrees outside but freezing inside, or vice versa.

The final step to consider is your shoes. You will be standing and your feet will be your foundation. An old pair of polished shoes maybe a better choice than a new pair that pinches your toes. I once wrote a folk song, “The High Heel Blues” with a chorus line “Little toe don’t pain me so, I got another half day to go.” Avoid “tuning in” to this kind of negative message. Peak performance requires the mind and body to be connected in an “inner game” of doing your best.

Supplementary Reading

“The Biometric Response to Presentation Heebie-jeebies” in Presentations, Dec. 1996, p. 158.

High-Impact Presentations: A Multimedia Approach, by Jo Robbins, Wiley, 1997.

In Pursuit of Excellence, by T. Orlick, Leisure Press, 1990.

The Inner Game of Tennis, by T. Gallwey, Random House, 1974.

“John Wayne’s Body” by Garry Wills in The New Yorker Magazine, Aug. 19, 1996, p.39.

Mental Toughness Training for Sports, by J. Loehr, Stephen Greene Press, 1982.

Speak and Grow Rich, by D. Walters and L. Walters, Prentice Hall, 1997.

Superlearning 2000, by S. Ostrander and L. Schroeder, Delacorte Press, 1994.

“Visualization and Imagery” in Swimming Technique, Jan-Mar 1988, Rayma Ditson-Sommer, p. 49.

Visualizing Successful Performance,” by Peak Running Performance, 1997.

“Watch What You Don’t Say” by Patricia Ball in The Toastmaster, Jan. 1998, p. 20.

“18 Tips for Making Your Next Presentation Less Stressful” in Presentations, July 1996, p.10.

Posted in: Guide on the Side, Presentation Skills