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Your breath speeds up, your pulse races. Your throat tightens as your palms sweat. You feel sick to your stomach, and when you speak, your hands and knees shake along with your voice.
These are common symptoms of stage fright, also known as performance anxiety. Millions of people experience the involuntary response when they’re faced with delivering a presentation or performing in front of others. This assumption of being judged arises from the spotlight effect — the belief that people are paying more attention (especially negative attention) to you than they truly are. It’s an evolutionary holdover of the “fight or flight” response. In this case, your body perceives actual danger from becoming the focus of others' attention.
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Stage fright is normal, but that certainly doesn't mean it's benign. Performance anxiety can affect your career and personal life. It can diminish your self-esteen or hold you back from taking on leadership roles at work. If you’re prone to stage fright, it’s important to take control of it before it starts controlling you. Here are five proven ways to approach the problem and make that spotlight work for you.
1. Pretend you’re excited about it.
One study from Harvard Business School revealed a novel way to cope with jitters before a speech: Pretend your anxiety is actually excitement. This provides a way to focus all that nervous energy and present it to yourself with a positive spin.
The project's researchers believe this approach may be more effective than simply trying to calm yourself. Telling yourself to settle down when you’re pumped full of adrenaline is an act of repression — it gives those feelings nowhere to go. In contrast, recasting your nervousness as excitement creates a framework to manage your emotions.
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2. Worry about the first five minutes — and that's it.
Research suggests the first few minutes of a presentation are the most stressful. After that, you’re more likely to settle into your role at the front of the room.
Knowing this can be a big advantage. When you’re practicing, make sure you have the first five minutes of your presentation down cold. (The rest of your presentation can be a bit more organic, which isn’t to say you shouldn’t practice it, too.)
When it's time to present, tell yourself you just have to get through those first five minutes. Believing you're fully prepared for the worst section of your talk will give you the confidence to step to the front of the room. Odds are you won't notice when those five minutes tick past. You'll already have found your groove in front of the crowd.
3. Focus on the material, not your inner critic.
Stage fright often generates a negative feedback loop that goes something like this: Before or during your presentation, the anxious part of your brain develops an image of how you must look to your audience. At the same time, it perceives every cue from the audience as a potential threat. If a listener yawns or steals a glance at the clock, your brain is likely to upgrade that action to a catastrophe. Before long, you're convinced everyone in the room is bored and hates your presentation.
The best way to overcome this downward spiral is to keep your focus outside of yourself. Remember that your audience isn’t here to see you. They’re here to gain something from the materials and ideas you have to share with them. Concentrate on your content above all else, and you'll avoid getting trapped in a negative state of mind.
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4. Visualize the worst outcome.
People who suffer from stage fright tend to expect the worst. If you've heard admonishments such as, "Focus on the positive!” or, “Just calm down,” you've learned that society stigmatizes those who fixate on potential negative outcomes. And if you're like most people, that will lead you to keep your fear a secret.
The trouble is, avoiding fears only gives them more power. The best way to cope with your worries might be to face them head on. Allow yourself to visualize everything you’re worried about, from tripping on your way to the podium to having your mind go blank in the middle of your presentation.
Then — this is key — brainstorm ways to cope with each of them. Prepare a joke to deliver if you do trip, for example. Rehearse these scenarios in your mind until you feel comfortable with them. This way, you can begin your presentation with confidence that you’re prepared to handle whatever comes your way.
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5. Improve your relationship with yourself.
A propensity for stage fright can indicate a variety of personality traits. These range from perfectionism to social anxiety. People who need to be liked or who fear being vulnerable are likely to suffer performance anxiety. So are those with low self-esteem, a desire for control or a fear of failure — or success.
One key to overcoming stage fright is to clarify the underlying factors of your own, personal fear. Developing self-awareness, self-compassion and self-confidence will help you avoid putting so much pressure on yourself.
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Unfortunately, there is no permanent cure for stage fright. If you experience performance anxiety, there's a good chance you might always feel a butterfly or two before you deliver a presentation. The good news is recognizing your triggers can help you apply the right strategies to manage your emotions.