When I was 7 my second grade class was given the mission of playing “The Discovery of America”. I remember energetically refusing to participate in the play firstly because I did not like to disguise -which could be very well related to my former fear of clowns- and secondly because I would’ve had to step up to the stage and play a character in front of hundreds of people, including my parents.
I ended up being the narrator of the story, from a very convenient position below the stage and away from all those “menacing” gazes.
For a long time I thought that what made me reject a role in the play was the feeling that it was embarrassing to be in a costume. Today I know that it was just the opposite: I was afraid to be embarrassed in front of the crowd.
The phantom: a play inside your mind
Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan spoke -and wrote- about something called The Phantom. Roughly speaking, the phantom are the lenses through which an individual learns its reality. These lenses are partial since ones’ desire is what construct the phantom. It’s like a giant play where we are the main character.
You can glimpse your phantom when you day-dream and even when you dream. During your day dreaming, you have control over the play and that’s the reason why day-dreams are so satisfying. When you are sleeping, your unconscious takes over and you are at its mercy.
What dreams tell you
At least once -if not more- in your life you’ve had those dreams where you are standing in front of a crowd -you know where I’m going- and when you start giving your speech you realize you are butt naked.
This is a good way of visualizing the concept of the phantom. Your desires are there: being someone “important” giving a speech. And your fears are there as well: being exposed or making a blooper in front of all those people.
Standing in front of a crowd
When you get ready to give a conference, facilitate a training or make the most important pitch of your life in front of a board of directors or important clients your phantom comes into play.
If you are a shy or introverted person your Super-Ego, that gigantic boot that is always trying to squash your defenseless Ego (you) can become your worst enemy. Your fear of being judged by the audience and the potential embarrassment you could feel if you froze midway through your presentation can all come together and haunt you during that important moment.
Even Pros make Bloopers
First of all, you must know that even pros aren’t exempt from experiencing technical glitches or making bloopers -video- during their presentations. If it happens to Steve Jobs and Sony’s CEO, why should you be exempt?
Besides, when they do mess up, do you see them blushing or running out of the building? Nope, they just embrace the moment, maybe laugh at it, and keep going.
This is not a post about giving the perfect speech, it’s about how to give a good one while overcoming your stage fright.
Tips for overcoming stage fright
When you feel overwhelmed by the crowd: picture the whole audience as only one person and don’t look at anyone in particular. Look at everyone and no one. Keep your gaze moving. Only stop briefly when looking at a particular member of the audience, talk to him for 5 or 7 seconds and keep moving, focus on someone else. This way you’ll not only increase the public’s engagement but you will not have to put up with someone’s stare for too long. What you are achieving by doing this is to focus on 1 person at a time while keeping the crowd in your peripheral vision. This happens because as your adrenaline levels sky rocket, your pupils dilate making the focus to become narrower. This tends to reduce the feeling of being looked at by everyone at the same time. Just remember, don’t stay there forever. Just a couple of seconds then talk to the next person.
Harness your adrenaline and use it to your advantage: it’s natural to feel nervous. In fact, 90% of people feel anxiety when they have to step up to the plate. Harness your adrenaline and make it work for you. Let your nervousness energize your keynote and engage the public.
When you forget what you are going to say: do not recap. Going back a couple of seconds into the presentation will be boring for your audience (since you’ve already been there 10 seconds ago) and will ultimately lead you back to where you started: you’ll hit the same road block again. Instead, move on with your speech; you can revisit that missed point later on. You can also have a plan B: if the audience is not too large ask them about that specific bullet or idea. They may tip you in the right direction and it will give you a few priceless seconds to regroup.
Rehearse: this is a must. On top of the obvious benefits of practicing your speech you’ll be able to identify those passages where you may block.
Be yourself: you may say, “why be myself if I am the problem”. Well, yes and no. And here’s why. When you stand in front of a crowd, you may feel compelled to “act professional”, “serious” and avoid conveying the impression that you are insecure. That’s the biggest mistake you can make. All those impositions feed your fears and authorize your Super-Ego to be even more ruthless. By being yourself you’ll be able to embrace your fears and you will also avoid forcing yourself into adopting a stance that is just not you. Let yourself go, get emotional, and if you fluke, laugh about it. Don’t be afraid of exercising a healthy self-deprecating humor. Don’t try to fit in, after all, today more than ever you are different than everyone else. You are the one standing up there.
Image credit, Wikimedia Commons