Stage Fright Can Happen To Anyone

Michael Bay, the movie director, has just proved that even the most apparently sophisticated of us can fall prey to stage fright. When the autocue broke down at the Consumer Electronics Show at Las Vegas, he panicked and walked off the stage. YouTube instantly made his scrambled exit as public as it was possible for it to be.

But actually this incident should be a comfort to the many people whose deepest anxiety is of public speaking. A number of famous politicians have spoken candidly about such fear, including those who seem supremely confident. For instance both Tony Blair and Winston Churchill have described the gut-churning terror of Prime Minister’s Question Time. Many of my coaching clients have told me that they would rather do almost anything than have to address a large, live audience. Other tortures such as having root canal treatment without an anaesthetic, or being locked by mistake into an abattoir, or being forced to handle tarantulas, have been mentioned as preferable.

Running away is an extreme response to the fear, but there’s a biological as well as a psychological explanation. The amygdala in the human brain responds as readily to perceived psychological threat and in just the same way as to a physical threat. It sends a flood of the hormone cortisol to the prefrontal cortex, effectively shutting down our higher thinking processes and sending glucose and adrenaline to our muscles to prepare us for running away.  Mostly, Michael Bay aside, running away is the very thing we can’t do, hence the terrible feeling of paralysis or the dread of it happening.

What can you do if this is one of your own worries?

  • The underlying fear is of looking incompetent or stupid. The unasked, secret question is ‘Do I look an absolute idiot when I do one of these things?’ This fear usually trumps concerns about the content of the presentation. Ask a loyal friend to capture an actual or a practice presentation on video and then show it to a few trusted persons for feedback. Normally this will reveal that while the performance is not worthy of the Royal Shakespeare Company nor is it dreadful. This experiment will usually also suggest some simple ideas for improvement such as standing in a more consciously relaxed way and making more effective eye contact with the audience.
  • However, the best remedy by far is to work on your mental processes.
  • First ask yourself what it is that you are burning to convey to the audience. What’s your message? What would you like then to know that you know? Or have them do that you do? What is the passion that you want to share with them?
  • How would you or do you explain this passion and commitment to a friend? What anecdotes would you tell this friend? What’s your personal story here? What struggles and conflicts were there for you in relation to it?
  • The answers to these questions will give you the theme and style for your presentation
  • Trust your own style – it does not need to be a copy of someone else’s. When I work with clients on this kind of problem, we look at together and I recommend that they get the TED app for further browsing where it becomes immediately obvious that personal stuff works better than anything pompous and ‘official’, that you do not need to be a bouncy extravert in order to speak well, that there is a multitude of ways of giving a presentation successfully, that a short length is better than long and that nothing beats storytelling for holding an audience
  • People have low expectations from presentations – we have all sat through far too many which go on too long, where the presenter drones through too many PowerPoint slides and has not stopped to consider what we, the audience, might need. But people also, mostly, wish you well. The people in the front row, possibly the only ones you will be able to see well, will have sat there in order to connect with you and cheer you on. Give them the satisfaction of doing that – look out for the ones who smile and nod – and smile back
  • Assume that the technology will break down – probably it won’t, but it is far better to plan to speak with minimal if any notes – maybe just a series of key words in big letters on one card. That way you can keep in visual contact with the audience rather than having the distraction of staring at a screen
  • If you still feel brutally anxious in relation to any presentation you have been invited to do in the future, then consider declining. So what if you annoy the organizer who has asked you, or if you appear to be dodging your duty when the request comes from a boss. Frankly there are likely to be few or no consequences from just saying no.

My guess is that the problem for Michael Bay is that he was hired to endorse a product in which he had little interest. When the autocue broke down, he found he had nothing to say. So he bolted.