Stage fright is the second most “popular” phobia, the first being the fear of death. Supposedly, over 90% of humanity has it.

The secret to its popularity is that stage fright is a manifestation of deeper, subconscious phobias. For example, a person can fear making a mistake, losing their authority, being ridiculed or rejected by society. Preconceptions form a negative attitude towards the situation, where the worst-case scenario from your nightmares can become reality. Speaking in front of a big and unfamiliar audience that will by all means be evaluating you fits this description well.

In general, there are three factors that trigger stage fright.

Credit: shutterstock.com
Credit: shutterstock.com

The unknown. Humans are always frightened by the prospect of facing an unfamiliar environment and people they don’t know. New things make us feel that we are losing control of the situation, and therefore lose confidence. 

Risk. The feeling of anxiety grows when you’re getting ready for an important presentation where a lot is at stake. For example, if you are soon to present a project that you’ve been working on for a long time, a thesis defence or a presentation of a business idea to potential investors, then there’s a higher chance that you’ll feel anxious, even if you’ve already kept your calm when presenting to small groups.

Environment. This can also play a role in shaping your fear. Even if you know the topic well and have recited your speech several times over, you can still start feeling anxious. For instance, just a moment before you started your presentation, someone starts repairs just outside the building, it gets extremely hot in the room, or the organizers propose to change the location, i.e. the environment changed.

Fear builds up gradually. If we were to use a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is slight anxiety, 5 is real fear and 10 is a panic attack, then it’s important that a person can fight anxiety on all levels up to fifth on their own. So your biggest task is to not let fear grow into panic that can completely paralyze you.

Expert advice

Credit: shutterstock.com
Credit: shutterstock.com

Identify the nature of your fear

In order to put your emotions under control, you need to understand what provokes them. Try answering the question: “What is it that I fear the most about this presentation?”. Is it being evaluated by the audience, or losing their interest? Maybe you’re afraid that you’ll fail to answer complex questions or make a mistake and appear incompetent? As soon as you understand what scares you the most, you’ll be able to come up with a plan for resolving this situation.

Change the focus of your attention

People often use “physical” tricks to fight their fear: breathe, take a walk, drink water. In reality, the fear is psychological in its nature, therefore you can fight it by psychological means only. Among the best of them is changing the focus of your attention.

When you’re thinking about the upcoming presentation,you usually focus on the scariest episodes: “I will forget the words”. “The presentation won’t open”, “I will mess up and start to mumble”. But try thinking about why some people like public presentations? What drives them? Attention? Atmosphere? New acquaintances? Think about which of those motivate you. Try getting your mind off fears and concentrating on how cool public speaking really is, being a rare chance to tell something to people, and if you’ve been given it, then it means that you are worthy, that people admire your knowledge and respect your opinions.

 Open lecture at ITMO University
Open lecture at ITMO University

Understand what your presentation is for

Give yourself an honest answer: why am I doing this presentation? Is this a chore that I just have to do, or I am presenting my personal findings and this is a very important personal achievement?

If it’s only something that you have to do, then there’s no need to worry. Why become anxious if that’s just a formality?

If your presentation is something really important for you, and there’s a lot at stake, then use our second tip: try focusing on positive emotions and results.

Spend more time getting ready

Immerse in the field in question: read some additional literature, watch videos, talk to professionals in order to get an even better grasp of your topic.

Practice shows that when a person is really interested and has good knowledge of their topic, they get a natural desire to talk about it to just anyone: from colleagues to family members. Try setting your mind on the topic, find interesting facts, come up with an unconventional approach and make it so that doing the presentation is interesting to you, as well.

Quantum Potential, ITMO’s Science Stand-Up Show
Quantum Potential, ITMO’s Science Stand-Up Show

Make a video of your presentation

If you doubt yourself, look at your presentation from the audience’s point of view . Record a video of your speech and then analyze how you talked, which gestures you used and what distracted you. Most importantly, don’t be too critical of yourself: presenting is no easy task and you need years of practice to get the necessary experience. But the first step to mastering it is to learn to control your emotions and fear.

Rehearse your speech where it will take place

You don’t always have this opportunity, but when you do, for example if you can come up to the stage during a coffee break or arrive earlier in order to get used to the environment in the room, you’ll be doing yourself a great service. This helps fight one of fear’s main triggers: the unknown. 

Don’t be a perfectionist

Aiming for highest quality work is definitely a plus and a sign of expertise, but worrying yourself sick because of that is just stupid. A public presentation is a live process. There’s a multitude of factors affecting your performance, and you can’t plan and account for everything — but that;s what makes public presentations so interesting. Don’t aim to do everything perfectly, better strive to perform at your best. And if something goes not as planned, who knows — maybe it’s for the better?

To sum up, remember that doing a presentation can and should be a pleasure. No one expects you to demonstrate unprecedented speechcraft or show magic tricks. Your goal is to communicate your ideas and enjoy the fact that you’re sharing them with an interested audience.

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