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3 Research-Backed Tips to Battle Stage Fright

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

"There are two types of speakers in the world: the nervous and the liars." —Anonymous

Speaking in public can be a powerful way to get our ideas across. Yet, for many of us, it’s a nerve-wracking experience. In fact, the perceived social risk is so high that it consistently ranks as a Top 5 fear.

The good news: Public speaking is a fear that anyone can conquer.

The bad news: We have to try harder than imagining our audiences naked.

Here are three research-backed tips to help you build the courage to speak in public:

Tip 1: Reframe your nervousness

Imagine your best friend has a fear of public speaking. What advice would you offer?

If you’re like most people, you’d suggest they try to be calm. Yet, research shows there’s a much better way to deal with stage jitters than trying to tame the nerves.

In one study, researchers had participants speak about themselves in front of a group of evaluators. Each presentation was judged on four dimensions: competence, persuasiveness, confidence, and persistence. Before speaking, one group of participants was instructed to try to calm down by saying, “I am calm.” The second group was instructed to reappraise their nervousness as excitement by saying, “I am excited.”

The result? The excited group outperformed the calm group on every measure. They even spoke for 29% longer. Why? Because both nervousness and excitement are arousal states, and it takes less effort to move from nervousness to excitement than it does from nervousness to calmness. Moreover, when you’re excited, you’re no longer in a threat mindset and can focus on the opportunities in front of you.

Since most people are both nervous and excited about speaking in public, tapping into what’s already there, instead of fighting it, makes good sense.

Tip 2: Use strategic doubt

When faced with a challenging task — like presenting — many of us try to build confidence through self-talk.

We say things like: "I got this!..I'm a badass!...I can do this!"

And, although research shows that self-talk improves performance, not all self-talk is equal. Studies demonstrate — in contrast to much of the advice in self-help books — that when people use self-talk to doubt themselves, they significantly up their performance.

Questioning yourself means asking, and answering, the following: Can I do this? If so, how?

Here’s what it might sound like

Can I do this presentation?

Yes, I think I can. I’ve given presentations before.

Can I do this presentation?

Yes, I think I can. I just have to remember to breathe and stick to my structure.

Can I do this presentation?

Yes, I think I can. That’s why I took NextArrow’s ‘Courageous Presentations’ workshop. They're so awesome!

The magic of this approach is that you go beyond a pep-talk and begin to think strategically: preparing, focusing, and upping motivation.

Tip 3: Create a courage ritual

Research shows that rituals can focus the mind, calm the nerves, and improve performance.

A study by Allison Wood Brooks and colleagues had participants go through an anxiety-inducing activity. Specifically, they told them to sing “Don't Stop Believing,” by Journey, in public. Half the participants did nothing prior to the performance. The other half performed a pre-performance ritual which included:

  • Drawing their feelings on a piece of paper

  • Sprinkling some salt on that paper

  • Counting backwards from five

  • Crumpling the paper

  • Throwing it away

The ritual-performing group ended up feeling less anxiety (measured through lower heart rate) and outperformed the control group in terms of singing accuracy.

So, what ritual action can you take to summon your courage? Consider the following suggestions:

  • Do something unusual: Rafael Nadal famously takes freezing showers 45-minutes before every match.

  • Select a phrase: Author Simon Sinek likes to say, “I’m here to give”, before speaking in public.

  • Listen to music: Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps listens to music right up until he starts to race. Interestingly, research shows that if you want to up your confidence, it’s best to select a song with a heavy bass or drum (e.g. In Da Club, We Will Rock You).

  • Wear lucky clothing: Serena Williams wears the same pair of socks during a tournament run (and does not wash them as long as she is winning).

  • Drink up: The Foo Fighters listen to Michael Jackson and do Jäger Bombs before every show.

  • Have a bite: Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory down some “lucky peanuts” before every major launch.

If you want to know more about how to overcome stage fright and deliver amazing presentations, check out our ‘Courageous Presentations’ workshop.

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