Do you sometimes feel you are not presenting yourself in the best possible way? Do you feel nervous before a meeting or presentation? Does the idea of public speaking fill you with dread? Do you get a dry mouth and clammy palms in meetings when you are faced with a group of people looking at you expectantly? If this sounds like you the chances are that you are suffering from a touch of performance anxiety. In this article you will find ten practical strategies for dealing with performance anxiety that you can apply immediately.
Performance anxiety is a fairly broad term. It ranges from an actor’s stage fright or the Olympic athlete’s adrenaline-fuelled nervousness before a race, to the discomfort felt by an introverted person at a drinks party. For the actor and the athlete it may be brought on by an expectation to produce excellence under the pressure of public scrutiny. For most of us, however, it is usually brought on by lack of confidence and self-limiting beliefs, which can have seriously debilitating effects on a person if not managed well.
Few of us will compete at the Olympic Games or grace the stage with our interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays, but most of us will at some point in our life be expected to make a speech, perhaps at a wedding, or make a sales presentation. And when that day comes you want to be able to step forwards confidently and without being wobbly on your pins.
Public speaking is listed as most people’s number-one fear before a solitary death, which comes in at number five, and loneliness at number seven, which I guess means that most of us are less afraid of dying alone than of making fools of ourselves in front of others? You may have heard the joke that some people would prefer to be in their coffin rather than read the eulogy at a funeral. While this is probably an exaggeration most of us do feel a degree of nervousness when preparing to speak in front of a group. Those who are filled with severe feelings of dread and panic in such situations are at a distinct disadvantage with a resultant loss of self-esteem that can adversely affect performance in every other part of their life.
I am a dyed in the wool, 100% confirmed introvert, but despite this I spent 25 years of my life as a successful ballet dancer, performing on stages in front of thousands of people throughout Europe and the rest of the World. I had to learn to manage my performance nerves on a daily basis. Now, as a Performance Coach this is an issue I come across with my clients frequently. These are some of the tactics I have used myself before going on stage so I know they work.
#1. SHIFT YOUR FOCUS
Focus on the job in hand, not on yourself and your fear of making mistakes. Remind yourself that you are contributing something of value to your audience. They have come to see or hear you because they are interested in what you have to say; they want you to succeed and they admire you for your courage to stand up there in the first place – just as you admire those that have the courage to step up to the mark. Try to connect with them, thinking of them as friends and supporters. The old trick of making yourself feel better by imagining your audience in their underwear does not work. Such mental images will be distracting rather than helpful.
#2. STOP SCARING YOURSELF
Thoughts of what might go wrong are not helpful. Anxiety is a problem with negative thinking so one way to combat it is to make yourself think positive thoughts, so try to relax and visualize your success. Always focus on thoughts and images that are reassuring; and on your strength and ability to handle challenges. Performance anxiety is self-sustaining because it creates a mind set that focuses only on mistakes and expectation of “judgment” by others. The fact is that your audience is probably much less judgmental about your performance than you are.
#3. CALM DOWN
Practice ways to stay calm, such as deep-breathing and relaxation exercises, or meditation. Hundreds of books on Mindfulness have been written containing countless pieces of good advice, most of it valuable. In this context the only thing you need to understand about Mindfulness is its essence – namely, that by becoming fully aware of the present, by calmly focusing your mind and breathing deeply, you can eliminate worry about the past and fear of the future. It may take practice, but it works. Why? Because it is worrying about the past and fearing the future, neither of which you can do anything about, that lie at the heart of every kind of anxiety.
#4. CREATE A RITUAL
Professional performers will always have a personal ritual that puts them in the right frame of mind to face an audience. Emulate the professionals and create you own deliberate ritual. The very act of performing a ritual will contribute to the healing process. Your ritual has to be personal but I would suggest it contains at least one but preferably all three of the following elements.
1. A calming breathing exercise, which can be combined with a brief moment of mindful meditation.
2. Visualizing a successful outcome of what lies ahead.
3. An “anchor”. This is a Neuro-Linguistic Programming technique of deliberately making a gesture or action that you associate with feeling confident. The act of consciously doing this will influence your sub-consciousness to replicate that same positive state of mind. By frequently practicing such an “anchor” it can become a remarkably effective tool for shifting your mind into a more positive state.
There is a good reason why musicians, actors, singers and dancers spend 99% of their working lives rehearsing and practicing their skills, so learn from the professionals – practice your material in advance. If possible do it in front of someone who can give you constructive feedback. The pressure of practicing in front of another person will also prepare you for the added pressure of doing the real thing in front of a proper audience. If you are making a presentation or giving a speech it is imperative that you read it aloud to hear your own voice, because words that look good on the page may not necessarily sound as good when spoken.
#6. BE FLEXIBLE
Don’t try to improvise; it never works. That said it is necessary to be open minded and flexible. If you have too rigid an idea of how your presentation or speech should turn out you will give yourself no margin for error, which means that if something does go slightly wrong you will find it difficult to recover. This in turn will increase any anxiety you felt already. In the event that the unexpected does happen, simply slow down for a second—take a deep breath—then pick up where you left off. This brief moment will give you a chance to regain your composure and gather your thoughts. You will probably find that no one even noticed that something went wrong. Such a pause might even add a touch of gravitas to your presentation.
#7. PROJECT CONFIDENCE
Pay attention to your body language. Your physical attitudes speak volumes about who you are and what you are feeling. An audience is very perceptive to how a person in front of them feels. Therefore to make yourself feel and look more confident stand up straight, lift your eyes off the floor and move in a self-assured, confident manner. This will have an immediate positive effect both on you and on your audience because when you move with confidence you will feel confident, and when you feel confident you will project confidence to your audience; it’s a win-win situation. So by simply deciding to move and stand with confidence you are in fact creating a self-perpetuating, upward-moving cycle of positive feelings.
#8. STAY HEALTY
Take care of your health. I know I’m stating the obvious when I say exercise, eat well, and practice a generally healthy lifestyle. Avoid eating a heavy meal before you have to appear in front of an audience. Your digestion needs time to process foods heavy on protein and carbohydrates, which will make you feel tired and sluggish, so stick to lighter foods and go easy on alcohol and caffeine. This may sound fairly obvious but it is always good to be reminded about the importance of maintaining a sensible approach to your physical well-being when you are facing a challenging task.
#9. FORGET PERFECTION
Aim for excellence but give up trying to be perfect. It’s OK to make mistakes. In fact, an audience will be more sympathetic towards someone who makes an occasional mistake because it makes them feel they are in the presence of someone who is as human as they are. Research has shown that an audience perceives a person who makes some minor mistakes during a presentation as more likable then someone who seems too perfect. If you do make a cock-up acknowledge it and move on, but you will find that a slip-up is far more noticeable to you than to an audience.
#10. BE YOURSELF
Whatever you do don’t try to emulate someone else’s performance. At best you will be seen as a second-rate version of that person. You will be much more successful as a first-rate version of you. Remember that you are unique. It does not matter whether you are an introvert or an extrovert. No one has your particular combination of knowledge and qualities to bring to the table. If you know what you need to say only you can say it the way it should be said.
REDUCING ANXIETY IN THE LONGER TERM
Anxiety itself can create more anxiety. It has been established that different kinds of anxiety are likely to fuel each other, so performance anxiety can bleed into other parts of your life too. Therefore to reduce performance anxiety you need to address your overall anxiety levels.
There are probably good evolutionary reasons for the Limbic brain system (which controls emotional responses among other functions) to kick in and trigger the fight-flight-or-freeze reflex when you’re about to speak in public. Because appearing in front of an audience brings with it the subconscious fear of being seen as different from the “tribe” and therefore facing the possibility of exclusion and reduced chances of survival in the wild. Knowing this is interesting but not of much help when you are standing in front of an audience with your heart pounding in your chest and with a sweaty brow.
Avoiding scary challenges may provide short-term relief, but never to address the problem at its core will reinforce your anxiety in the long run. If your performance anxiety is connected to public speaking improving your presentation skills is good up to a point, but it’s generally not enough to eliminate the problem completely. You must tackle all your negative cognitions and self-limiting beliefs. Getting to know yourself and accepting the person you are is at the root of healing, and one way of doing this is through working with a personal coach.
The good news is that if you have the courage to extend your comfort zone, little-by-little, day-by-day, there is no limit to how far you can go in improving your competence, which will strengthen your confidence in all areas of life.