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It's Always about Stage Fright. Always.

Updated: Nov 17, 2020

What do I say? What do I do? Why can’t I speak anymore? Say something, mouth - anything.

The biggest fish in the pond is often the hardest to catch. Think of public speaking as said pond, and really, there is no bigger fish than stage fright.

Stage fright is a negative behavioural response that is actually very common, especially among speakers. According to Wikipedia, stage fright (or performance anxiety) is a form of anxiety phobia which can be triggered when in front of an audience. It can manifest itself in musicians, dancers, actors, and most definitely – speakers. Quite often, stage fright can arise in a mere anticipation of a performance, often a long time ahead.

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Crash and Tumble

People who experience stage fright tend to tell themselves things like, “I will never survive this,” or “I will never overcome this”. For any speaker, this is the most disastrous thing you can do. Formulating failure over and over again in your mind, even before the presentation has been delivered. Speakers with stage fright don’t deal all too well with criticism, either. When they hear a critical comment about their presentation, they tend to focus on it and replay it over and over in their heads. How destructive is this, you ask? The answer is a resounding very.

You know, there’s an even better way to explain the process. Let’s talk science for a bit.

Behind stage fright

By default, we’re hardwired to worry about our reputation above almost all things. Certain primitive parts of the brains trigger reactions to things that threaten the safety of our reputation. And these are very hard to control.

We see these reactions in another functionally similar fear, as well. The fear of death, for example. When someone claps loudly in front of your face, that triggers a fearful reaction. It could be a jump backwards or a grimace, but no matter how much we try to remain perfectly calm, our reason and will feels powerless against the reaction towards danger.

This natural response has been concluded to have ancient primitive roots that have not been affected by nuances in modern civilization. This response is known as the “fight or flight” syndrome, a natural process that works to keep our bodies safe from potential threats.

The principle is the same. When you think about negative consequences, the hypothalamus, a part of your brain, activates and triggers the pituitary gland to secrete the hormone ACTH. This hormone stimulates the Adrenal Glands in your kidneys and releases adrenaline into your blood.

At this point the reactions take place. As your body tries to move into a foetal position, your neck and back muscles contract (forcing your head down and your spine to curve), thus producing a slouching posture.

Trying to resist this posture causes your legs and hands to shake as the muscles in your body instinctively prepare for an impending attack. Blood pressure increases and the digestive system shuts down to ensure a more efficient delivery of nutrients and oxygen to your vital organs. This can lead to the feeling of dry mouth or butterflies. Your pupils will be next. They dilate to the extent that makes it hard to read anything up close (like your note cards), but improves long range visibility, making you more aware of your audience’s facial expressions.

Whew! That was tinny bit more biology than intended.

However, it’s important to know what causes stage fright. Ever heard that saying that goes: “to conquer your enemy is to know your enemy”? Well, now that we’ve covered the part to know - it’s time to conquer.

And to help with that, we’ll take a few pointers from 2015 World Champion of Public Speaking, Mohammad Qatani. Qatani delivered his winning speech, “The Power of Words” at the 2015 Toastmasters International annual convention.

What’s surprising is his amazing transformation from a security engineer to speaker extraordinaire. In an interview, Qatani admitted that as a child, he feared public speaking as much as the next guy. On top of that, he also struggled a stutter that impaired his ability to communicate clearly with other kids, and periodically as an adult.

But yet, this same man would go on to claim one of the highest honours for any public speaker – the title of World Champion of Public Speaking. Here’s what he did:

Mohammad Qatani
I am better

Qatami’s secret was a surprisingly simple psychological strategy to get over his stage fright and into the right frame of mind. He constantly told himself that he was better than his audience.

This mental trick changes your perception of the power dynamic that exists between you and the audience. We become fearful and nervous when we feel that our reputation is on the line. And this translates across the stage as well. Speakers experience fear because they think that audience members will judge you and are actively waiting for you to make a mistake.

But the reality of the matter is that nearly every audience member wants you to succeed. According to Qahtani, the audience willingly sits in front of you because it believes you have something to teach, and it would like to be enlightened and entertained.

Indeed, the audience expect you to be better than they are.

However, this doesn’t mean that we have to boost our ego to arrogant heights to overcome stage fright. Qahtani warns that we shouldn’t let ego take over. “Just keep in mind that you are better than everyone who’s watching you because you have the courage to stand and they don’t,” Qahtani says.

“The more you believe in that, the more relaxed you become,” Qahtani said. “And when you step in front of your audience, he added, you won’t be crippled by the prospect of stumbling over your words or forgetting something important. Instead, you’ll think, “Even if I make a mistake, so what?”


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