How to Conquer Nerves, Anxiety and Stage Fright

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Public speaking is a true test of character. It transcends status, job titles, personal and professional accomplishments and the reason why is because when you stand on stage in front of an audience there is nowhere to hide. So it's no surprise to hear surveys reporting that we fear public speaking more than death. Personally, I think that's a ridiculous thing to say - I find it highly unlikely that anyone would choose death if they were faced with the choice.

That said, I don't think there is anyone who hasn't had to battle with nerves, anxiety and stage fright in the lead up to delivering a speech that they really care about. We are not taught how to deal with expectation or pressure when we are growing up so it's no wonder many of us struggle to cope when we are put into the situation.

I think it's also important to note that stage fright can affect the most seasoned public speaker, particularly if they are giving a talk under different circumstances to the ones they normally find themselves in.

One thing that all world-class performers (and by performers I'm talking about actors, musicians, comedians, sportspeople etc.) have in common is they have practice building unbreakable, unshakeable, stage-ready confidence and in this blog, you will find a 4 step process that I have been refining over many years of helping people overcome nerves and anxiety in the lead up to delivering a talk in a high-pressure environment.

Don't expect to read anything about breathing techniques, visualisation or creating peak performance states. All of them are brilliantly effective when applied correctly, but without a solid foundation, they are no more effective than an ill-fitting plaster.

In this blog, we are going to start from the beginning and if you go through each step thoroughly, you will come out not only a more effective communicator but a more confident one too.

Step 1: Increase your Self-Awareness

My first job out of university was as a door to door charity fundraiser. A brutal environment, yet I can't think of a more effective training ground to build resilience, develop my confidence and improve my communication skills.

In a job like that, a one size fits all communication approach will yield average results at best... something that I learned the hard way! My first few weeks in the job were incredibly challenging and it wasn't until my manager asked me to take a personality test that I took my first steps to building my emotional intelligence.

The test taught me self-awareness and showed me how to identify the personality traits of others so I could adjust my communication style to the people I was speaking to. The impact was profound. My results started to sky rocket and I ended up raising just shy of £250k.

That test fundamentally changed how I communicate and it's provided me with a framework to better understand myself and tailor my messages to the people I'm speaking to.

Now there are loads of personality tests out there and it would be remiss of me to not mention that the science behind them is, well, lacking at best. Despite the fact they have been dubbed the astrology of the office, lots of companies are using them as part of their recruitment process. My biggest frustration with them is that they put people in boxes and don't take context into account. If not taken too seriously and used as a tool to build self awareness though, I think there is a huge opportunity to explore.

When it comes to communication, we adapt to the circumstances we find ourselves in; who we are speaking to (friend vs colleague), the nature of the relationship (e.g. speaking to a manager vs speaking to a peer), the topic of conversation (and how comfortable we feel talking about it), and the setting we are communicating in (one to one, team meeting, presenting at a conference or a company all-hands) are just some of the factors at play.

Another critical factor, is of course the role we take on (often subconsciously) in a given situation. Are you there to provide the energy or the information, the support or the counter argument, the solutions or the path forward? Having clarity on this alone will do tremendous things for your confidence, particularly if nerves and anxiety prevent you from finding your voice and speaking up.

The test I took was created by psychologists, Dr. David Merrill and Dr. Roger Reid and like many of the other tests, after taking it in its original form you will find yourself well and truly labelled. So I've decided to recreate it and tweak the results section to show you the extent to which you 'adopt' each of the 4 communication styles.

If you would like to take the adapted version of the original test - you can do so here.

Step 2: Understand your Audience

In the context of public speaking, there is often a huge disconnect between what a presenter talks about and what the audience wants to hear. The result? A lack of connection, engagement and ultimately a message that falls on closed ears. Taking the time to understand how the message might be received and the context in which the presentation is taking place will do wonders for both your confidence and the audience's confidence in you.

Here are a few things to think about:

  • Who are the audience? What is their background? What communication style are they likely to fall under?
  • Why are they here? Do they want to be there or do they have to be there?
  • What questions are they likely to ask you? Forewarned is forearmed - Create a list!
  • What are they worried about? Great presenters will speak to an audience's concern. If you can articulate the problems they are experiencing better than they can, you have the ability to create an incredible connection with them.
  • Is your audience generalist/specialist (amiable, analytical, expressive, driver)?

When you've mapped out your answers to these questions, you're ready for step 3...

Step 3: Create a Bulletproof Alter Ego

Perhaps the most important question you can ask yourself in the lead up to delivering a big presentation is:

Who does my audience need me to be?

For Beyonce, the answer is Sasha Fierce. A bold, fearless alter ego that Beyonce uses to get into the right mindset before stepping on stage to perform. And it turns out she is not alone; Adele's alter ego is Sasha Carter (a hybrid of Sasha Fierce and June Carter). According to Todd Herman's book, The Alter Ego Effect, creating an alter ego is one of the most effective ways to overcome self-doubt, negativity and insecurity.

It's an extreme form of 'self-distancing.' A decade of research by Ethan Kross, Professor of psychology at the University of Michigan has found that as well as helping people to feel less anxious about an upcoming event, there was a significant increase in feelings of self-efficacy. In other words, those that adopt an alter ego are more likely to believe they can cope with the situation at hand and achieve the desired result*.

When you have confidence in the message you want to share and your ability to deliver it with conviction, everything changes. From how well you sleep the night before a big presentation, to how your body manages nerves, anxiety and stage fright on the day. It might even change how you walk out onto the stage. I'm not suggesting your nerves will completely disappear, but you will be far better equipped to manage them and as this lovely graph explaining Yerkes-Dodson Law shows... that is good enough.

Alex Merry, public speaking coach, presentation skills, thought leadership, communication training, leadership development, TED talks, keynote speech

Step 4: Choose your Public Speaking Persona

While your alter ego will provide you with the confidence to speak, it's the public speaking persona (aka communication style) you choose to adopt that will determine how well your message lands. So arming your alter ego with different personas to use will help you be prepared for every occasion.

The original quiz was designed for 1:1 interactions so I've reframed the personas specifically for public speaking and presentation scenarios. Below you can deep dive into each persona; what they are, when and how to adopt them and how to communicate to each style. I have also provided an example speech of someone delivering a talk using a less prominent communication style. Proof that learning how to adapt our persona to the situation can result in extraordinary results!

Alex Merry, public speaking coach, presentation skills, thought leadership, communication training, leadership development, TED talks, keynote speech

The Ally (Amiable)

Ally's make everyone in the room feel like they are speaking to them individually. They choose nuance over hyperbole, questions over commands and see their time in the spotlight not as an opportunity to stroke their ego, but to leave the audience with something profound.

When to adopt your inner Ally:

As master of ceremonies, giving a speech about someone else (e.g. leaving speech for a colleague) or reflecting on the end of a chapter (e.g. a commencement address), during a heated meeting, when presenting to your peers.

Traits to double down on:

  • Communicating with empathy.
  • Asking questions that make the audience think.
  • Creating legends; talking up those around you.

Traits to be wary of:

  • Letting nerves and anxiety prevent you from speaking up.
  • Sitting on the fence; not committing to a decision.
  • Saying what you think others want to hear to avoid conflict.

When communicating to a room full of Allies:

  • Remember to smile; we smile 33% of the time we think we do.***
  • Explain why achieving a particular task is important to you.
  • Use 'We' statements rather than 'You' statements to create connection.

P.s. You can spot an ally in the room because they are often the ones taking copious amounts of notes.

A surprising Ally Speech: Steve Jobs, How to Live Before You Die

There is no doubt Steve Jobs naturally fits into the category of a visionary. Highly demanding and ultra-task focused. That said, when he stepped up to address Stanford's Class of 2005, he had the emotional intelligence to tap into his Ally traits to deliver one of the best commencement speeches of all time.

The Magnet (Expressive)

Natural born entertainers, Magnets have that ability to make the most mundane things sound interesting. When they speak, everyone listens, but paradoxically it is often their ability to use silence as a tool to create anticipation that draws people in.

When to adopt your inner Magnet:

At a celebration (a toast, best man/maid of honour's speech), sales presentations, team building workshops, motivational team talks, closing out a company all-hands, when presenting to those more junior to you.

Traits to double down on:

  • Speaking with passion. Communication is a transference of feelings.
  • Your ability to tell stories means your content is always entertaining.
  • Increasing the tension/anticipation in the room by using silence.

Traits to be wary of:

  • Rambling; at the expense of sharing something meaningful.
  • Relying on enthusiasm alone to persuade. Hope and knowledge builds confidence.
  • Using hyperbole for effect, the world is more 50 shades of grey than black and white.

When communicating to a room full of Magnets:

  • Express how you feel and get excited about the big picture.
  • Double down on your eye contact.
  • Make it clear how they will be involved in the plan.

P.s. Magnets are the ones in the audience on the edge of their seats nodding in agreement to everything that you say.

A surprising Magnetic speech:

Don't be fooled by the fact it's poetry or lack of crowd into thinking that this talk should be with the Allies. When Amanda walked on stage, it wasn't just her words that drew us in, she used her contagious smile and heartfelt delivery.

The Architect (Analytic)

The devil is in the detail and Architects are the masters of communicating it. They know that you need to education in order to inspire and that the ability to affect change comes from being able to not only pinpoint the problem but also communicate a systematic approach to solving it.

When to adopt your inner Architect:

Factual workshops (and other learning-based environments; lectures etc.), business meetings where problems need to be solved, technical information needs to be shared and crises need to be averted.

Traits to double down on:

  • Backing up ideas with thorough research.
  • Transferring knowledge; persuasion through education.
  • Using props to simplify potentially overwhelming and complex datasets.

Traits to be wary of:

  • Alienating your audience by going into too much detail.
  • Focusing too much on facts rather than feelings.
  • Perfectionism, not committing to a focus without 100% certainty.

When communicating with Architects:

  • Be systematic and thorough, take them through the 'how.'
  • Where possible, quantify the impact of the message you‘re sharing.
  • Pre-empt the problems that Architects are likely to fear.

P.s. Architects are the least expressive in the audience. Don't mistake this for a lack of interest, they are deep in thought.

Surprising Architect speech:

Hans Rosling is proof that by tapping into the Magnetic parts of your personality when you're talking large information sets, you can be spellbinding. Packaging your insights as a data story is like building a bridge from the rational to the emotional (decision making) part of your brain.

The Visionary (Driver)

When Visionaries walk on stage, they own them. Incredibly persuasive, well researched and calculated with their delivery, for them public speaking is a catalyst to create change. Crystal clear in their vision for the future, not only will they persuade you to believe in it, they'll tell you in no uncertain terms the role you shall play in it.

When to adopt your inner Visionary:

In times of uncertainty, c-suite/board level meetings, when presenting to those more senior than you.

Traits to double down on:

  • Your desire to create change.
  • Planting 'power statements' that get your messages across with impact.
  • Using juxtaposition to contrast 'Where we are now' vs. 'Where we want to be.

Traits to be wary of:

  • Starting with 'what' rather than 'why.'
  • Forgetting to smile when you speak.
  • Your natural tendency to frame things negatively.

When communicating with Visionaries:

  • Get straight to the point - what is the problem that needs to be solved/ outcome that needs to be achieved?
  • Show a willingness to do what it takes to get the job done.
  • Start with facts, finish with feelings.

P.s. Visionaries will be sat crossed armed, stone faced and are prone to distraction.

A surprising Visionary speech:

Some of the best public speakers in the world would class themselves as introverts, yet some take the spotlight despite of the fact that every bone in their body is telling them not to. They are driven by a higher purpose to make a change and Greta's speech is proof of this. Notice that she has adopted some of the most powerful visionary traits for this talk; smart given the majority of the people in the room (politicians) typically feel most at home in this category.

What we have really been exploring here is emotional intelligence (EQ). The capacity to understand and manage your emotions has been found to be the strongest predictor of performance within organisations** and it is the first step to conquering your nerves, anxiety and stage fright.

Most of the traps we fall down when it comes to presenting stem from a lack of EQ, especially when it comes to presenting in high-pressure environments. There is often a huge disconnect between the way we see ourselves and the way we come across when we present.

Some have the ability to walk into a room and sap the life and energy from our souls while being completely oblivious to it. Others have the ability to make anything sound interesting but their message often gets lost in the process.

Emotional intelligence can be broken down into self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management.

Stage-ready confidence begins with self-awareness; understanding your own strengths, accepting your weaknesses and recognising the effect your emotions have on others.

Channelling an alter ego when you present will help you to practice self-management and thrive under pressure.

Learning how to pinpoint the communication styles from the quiz in your audiences will help you to increase your social awareness because you'll be able to read the room, recognise the emotional dynamics at play and practice empathy.

Finally, choosing the public speaking persona that's relevant to the situation you find yourself in will increase your ability to influence, coach and mentor others. In other words, communication will become your most valuable tool to affect positive change.



***I was taught this once but have found no scientific evidence to back this up, yet it has stayed with me so thought I'd share it.

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