In fifth grade I was cast as Miranda in The Tempest at Caimbridge Elementary School. I was thrilled to perform a Shakespearean play and wholeheartedly dove into memorizing lines and developing my character. The first two months of rehearsal were heaven. But two weeks before the performance, with the looming reality of opening night, I began to panic. At night I lay awake, imagining the horror of forgetting my lines or tripping on stage with an entire cafeteria audience of my peers laughing at my failure. Not only did I lose sleep, but in rehearsals I began to fumble my lines and, instead of playing with my fellow thespians, my focus was consumed by my trembling hands and the criticisms in my mind.
One afternoon, Mr. Franz asked me to stay after rehearsal—apparently, in the role of confident actress, I wasn’t convincing. “Do you like roller coasters?” he asked.
“Of course,” I replied, unsure where this was going.
“I want you to think about taking the stage the same way you think about riding a rollercoaster. The fear your feel is just excitement, and can be fun.” Fun was a step too far, but the analogy made sense. I loved rollercoasters. Standing in line for the Tidal Wave at Marriott’s Great America, I expected terror to coarse through my blood. This fear made the screams more gleeful as I careened upside down at 55 miles per hour, and the triumph even greater afterwards. This change in perspective altered my experience of performance anxiety forever.
The same is true for the fear of public speaking. Whether presenting to a team at work, getting on a sales call, or delivering a speech, fear can shut you down and prevent your message from reaching your audience. The good news is that simply changing your perspective can have a profoundly positive impact. Beyond “positive thinking”—which can be a form of self-delusion that we don’t advocate—adopting the perspective that your fear of public speaking is an asset can change the physiological experience itself. This change is called Cognitive Reappraisal, a phenomenon documented in numerous studies. According to Oxford University Press, Cognitive Reappraisal is “…an emotion regulation strategy that involves changing the way one thinks about a stimulus in order to change its affective impact.”
Additionally, when directed this fear/excitement can give you greater presence as a speaker. View the fear as helpful. Even the physical symptoms of fear—increased heart rate, sweaty palms, and trembling hands—are evidence of your body supporting you. While you may worry that your thumping heart is a precursor to a heart attack, the truth is your body is responding to the need for additional oxygen to support your breath, so you can project greater volume and energy to your audience. This awareness alone can quiet the trembles.
So instead of fighting the fear, follow these steps to change it into excitement through principles of Cognitive Reappraisal:
- Awareness: We must first notice and acknowledge the experience we’re having. Notice you inner thoughts and feelings, as well as the external expression in your body, without judgement. Bringing awareness to the conscious mind can soothe fear.
- Acceptance: Don’t resist the experience or pretend it isn’t happening. Resisting fear or, worse, denying its existence will make it worse.
- Reframe: Consciously choose to view the experience as positive. Envision the success of your performance. Tell yourself “I got this,” “I’m gonna rock it,” or whatever makes you feel awesome.
- Breathe: Take full, deep breaths to ground yourself before going on stage. During your speech, take time to breathe between thoughts. Then connect with your audience and share with them.
Though distinct from the idea of Cognitive Appraisal, the final point about breath is essential. Sometimes our symptoms can distract from our message and prevent us from being present with an audience. So taking the time to ground ourselves in full, deep breaths can slow the metabolism, allowing us to be more present.
So the next time you step on stage to present a keynote, motivate your sales team, or deliver a Shakespearian soliloquy, remember that thrill of standing in line for a rollercoaster, looking down a black-diamond slope before skiing, or standing at the edge of a cliff in your wingsuit. Reconnect to your purpose, breathe, notice the trembles, and remind yourself that this experience is just excitement. Then breathe deeply, throw your hands in the air, and enjoy the ride!