What to Do with Your Stage Fright

The_ScreamA recent study from Harvard Business School of 400 participants found that if you tell yourself to get excited when about to do something stressful, like give a speech, you do better than when you try to calm yourself down.

At least, that’s the way the study was discussed in the press – as a counter-intuitive finding promoting stage fright over stage calm.  But actually what was going on was that the research subject were learning to focus and manage their emotions going into the speech (or the karaoke session).  They were instructed to say to themselves, “I am excited,” thus channeling those adrenaline-based symptoms we’re all familiar with into something more acceptable and less alarming than stage fright.

Being excited, after all, is generally considered a good state, and it’s one that will translate well to an audience.  Because the speaker leaks his or her emotions to the audience; through mirror neurons, the audience picks up whatever emotions the speaker is feeling.  So most speakers leak fear to their audiences.  These speakers in the study were transforming that fear into excitement and everyone was having a better time as a result.  Excitement, after all, is a better emotion for both communicating and listening than fear.

Beyond the immediate emotional benefit, the speaker gains something else by turning fear into excitement:  focus.  Anxiety, or fear, or stage fright, is a generalized emotion that will admit and indeed amplify all sorts of obsessive thoughts and emotions from fear of doing badly in the performance itself to having one’s life ruined by the public shame and humiliation that will (one fears) follow a bad performance.

If instead the speaker is focused on excitement, there is room for positive thinking about outcomes, and the speaker’s focus stays on a positive emotion that is both charismatic and infectious.  All of that increases a speaker’s hit rate with an audience and makes him or her more memorable.

There’s lots to be gained from turning stage fright into stage excitement.  And indeed, it’s only the first step.  As I discuss in Power Cues, my new book due out from Harvard in May of this year, creating an emotional journey for speaker and audience leads to a far more engaging and convincing speech, or meeting, or negotiation for all concerned.  Excitement is only the beginning.

Comments

    • Nick MorganNick Morgan says

      Thanks, Marc! And great life lesson: if you can parachute jump, surely you can speak in public!

  1. says

    Hi Nick,

    This was some research that I was unaware of. Thanks for sharing! I think for most of us, having a surge of adrenaline is just a part of the speaking process. How we handle that surge though is another matter entirely. Some of us get the fight or flight reflex, while others get the rush of a roller coaster where it is both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. I think the old Toastmasters quote about not trying to get rid of your butterflies, but trying instead to get your butterflies to fly in formation is a quote that fits in quite well with the point you are making.

    All the best…

    Ian

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