February 05, 2019

From Stage Fright to Stage Presence

Sharlene Hawkes

Sharlene Hawkes
President /Remember My Service Productions

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         Scene 1: It’s your turn to make the sales pitch this time, and the conference room is filled with unreadable faces expecting to be unimpressed--or impressed, depending on the hype preceding you.  The lump in your throat is getting harder to swallow, your breathing is shallow.  Your heart starts doing a rap number.  You have been waiting forever, yet the presenter before you drones on and on.  How do you put the brakes on runaway nerves?

            Scene 2:  You have been assigned to introduce the visiting president of the company at the annual awards banquet. You only have about 2 minutes worth of an introduction—it shouldn’t be anything to worry about.  But as you approach the podium, with all expectant eyes focused on you, it occurs to you in a sudden rush of heart-stopping adrenaline, that you have forgotten the president’s name. This is commonly known as the brain freeze, which is not fatal though you may think so at the time.  How do you gracefully thaw from a brain freeze?

            Scene 3:   You are the parent’s advocate before the school board.  Your presentation could make the difference between an “aye” or a “nay”.  You have been allotted 10 minutes for your argument, and just as you begin speaking, the committee chairman interrupts you and tells you that due to the lateness of the hour, you have 60 seconds to make your case.  How do you gather your wits and your thoughts to handle the unexpected?

            No matter the size of your audience or the occasion when you suddenly find yourself alone in the spotlight, the sheer panic that sets in--even for just a few seconds--is capable of tying your tongue in knots, or worse, causing you to say or do something to stumble even further.

            When ice skaters take a flying leap in a competition or performance, then land awkwardly on something other than their skates, no doubt they would give anything to cut a hole in the ice and simply disappear.  Or at least run off the ice and hide.  But they don’t…they can’t.  Such a departure would actually be worse than the experience that brought on the humiliation. They only have one choice: to pick themselves back up—immediately—and go on. 

We too would often like to “disappear” right away, through a conveniently placed trap door right beneath our feet.  But obviously, that’s wishful thinking. So how can you get those feelings of embarrassment and humiliation to disappear?  To vanish into thin air as though you never experienced them?  And even more critical, how can you turn such a negative into a positive?  How can you turn all those stares of disbelief or amusement or shock at your expense, into looks of approval and encouragement?

Did you know that death is not the number one fear of most Americans?   The number one fear is actually public speaking.  Even Moses was scared of speaking, explaining to God: “I am not eloquent…I am slow of speech and of a slow tongue.”  So you see, you’re not alone.  I am a professional speaker—have been for many years--yet I still get nerves before a speech. I worked as a television sports broadcaster for 19 years and yet, for an hour or so before the red light above the camera went on, I had to monitor my breathing. But I have learned to appreciate those nerves because they are telling me that I am still on my toes, I am still concerned about doing a good job, I am still anxious to be as fully prepared as possible.  Let nerves work for you. Tell yourself, this is a GOOD thing!

            In fact, consider this. Let’s say you meet a bear in the forest.  At that instant, your sympathetic nervous system kicks into action.  That’s the one that increases your heartbeat, tells you that you are not hungry, and prepares you for physical action.  You are in the  fight or flight response mode That’s exactly the same response you feel when something goes wrong in the spotlight. Since we just mentioned that “flight” really isn’t an option—the ensuing embarrassment would be far worse—then imagine yourself ready to fight. Your senses are on 100% alert. Throw away any thoughts of flight since that doesn’t allow you to focus on the fight, and zero in on what you can do.

How do you put the brakes on runaway nerves?

I remember vividly the first time I was asked to sing before an audience larger than my family reunions (of about 35).  As I waited, I allowed these thought to take over:

 “Oh no, I can’t remember the first note!”

 “Oh no, I can’t remember any of the words!”

 “I won’t be able to hold the microphone straight --I’m shaking too hard!”

 “I CAN’T BREATHE!” 

  But then it was my turn, the music began, and I started to sing.  No, it wasn’t my best, but considering that I had just been on my death bed moments before, I did all right.  I learned a few things in the years since that baptism by song:

            1) There is an immediate solution. Breathe.  Breathing is good for you--it carries oxygen to your brain which will help you send the right signals to your vocal chords, asking them to please formulate the exact sounds you had rehearsed.   Remember, breathe, and take long, slow breaths.

            2) Don’t try to out-guess what the audience may or may not be thinking of you.  Go with your preparation, and your instinct.  If you are comfortable, your audience will be comfortable. Sometimes, you just have to pretend  to be comfortable.

            3) THINK POSITIVELY.  As you run through your part of the program in your mind, make sure you are envisioning yourself doing things right not wrong.  I have a friend who was a champion ice-skater.  But before she could become a champion, she had to revamp some of her thought patterns.  Right before a competition as she mentally skated through her program with her coaches, she would invariably say, “…and bam! She’s down!…but she’s up again!”  It was a good sign that she envisioned herself getting up again however,  once she threw out that first part about her falling to the ice, Elaine Zayak not only pictured herself as a world champion, she became the World Champion.

            4) Don’t tell the audience you are nervous.  Chances are, no matter how hard you are shaking and sweating, 95% of your audience will never know, unless of course you announce it.  Telling them all about your uncontrollable knees makes them feel uncomfortable and they will be less likely to focus on your message, and instead, focus on whether or not you will survive.  At this point, that’s not the attention you want!

            5) Get your adrenaline going before you enter the spotlight.  This may not work for everyone,  but my favorite strategy is to hit the stage running.  No, not literally.  What I mean is that instead of finding someplace quiet to meditate, I do the opposite.  Right before it was my turn to perform on stage at the Miss America pageant in front of 25,000 people in the hall and a TV audience of millions,  I walked around backstage talking to everybody and trying to keep myself animated. At the same time, I rubbed my hands together vigorously, and rubbed the muscles in my arms.  I jumped up and down. When it was my turn to walk out on stage and into a national spotlight, I had already awakened and heightened my senses.

The idea is to get my adrenaline as close as possible to where it will be when I step out on stage.  Then the rush won’t kill me—it might take my breath away for a moment, but it won’t kill me. Just as I wouldn’t think of running in a race without warming up, I wouldn’t think of entering the spotlight without a sensory warm up.  In fact, I make sure I exercise the day of a performance or speech--if time permits—so I feel as alert as possible.

How do you gracefully thaw from a brain freeze?

            No matter who you are, how experienced or glib you are, you know the hot cheeks and the terrifying absence of mind of the “brain freeze” malady. Maybe it was as a kid in a classroom, or perhaps just recently in the boardroom. 

            In Scene 2, you have forgotten your bosses’ name (or anyone’s for that matter).  Well, if you’re a stand-up comic, you’d just crack a joke, or say something silly. “Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome…the man who signs our paychecks, the man who brings meaning to our lives, the man we name our children after and therefore needs no further introduction…the world’s…greatest….boss!” But again, most of us are not natural “hams” so we don’t trust ourselves to make a humorous ad-lib.  Most of us just feel sheer panic.

            The first thing that happens in that split-second when panic sets in, is that you rely on experience. If you are quite experienced in front of an audience, and/or you are supremely confident (because a: you know they love you or b: you own the company), you might simply say something straightforward like, “Hey, my brain suddenly froze, let’s move on”.  But since most of us fall into the inexperienced category…

            Again, first thing to do is to breathe.

            Next, remind yourself there is always another way of saying something.  That’s one of the most valuable lessons I learned from my years in broadcasting.  Never be so stuck on one way of saying something that you can’t adjust.   That’s why we have a dictionary full of options. Be sure you know the points you want to make, but in the back of your mind, leave a back door open for other words to march in and replace those that have been locked in the freezer. Even a problem like forgetting a name can be skirted. While it will seem obvious to most people that the name was forgotten, they will be impressed with the other words you came up with (i.e. instead of the person’s name, the use of flowery and perhaps exaggerated compliments like those mentioned above).

            And if other words still don’t come, just do what the experienced folks do…be honest.  The big difference between being an 18 year-old and forgetting the words to a song, and being a 23-year-old and forgetting the words, was my willingness as an older, more experienced performer to laugh at myself.  Tell them exactly what happened.  Tell them you had the information filed away in your brain last time you checked, and remind them that they too know the chill of a brain freeze.  Then ask if anyone else can fill in what is missing. I always say,   ‘Fess up when you mess up.    It puts the audience in your corner since everyone knows what it’s like to mess up. If you’re not experienced, just pretend that you are.  Fake it ‘til you make it!  That’s my motto!

How do you gather your wits and your thoughts to handle the unexpected?

            Whether you have just been told to slash your remarks to the bare minimum, or the microphone dies on you, or someone stands at the back of the room and starts shouting unmentionables…..such interruptions have the capability of completely derailing you from your plan.

             To avoid the “dead air” and the blank stares while you fumble to get back on track, first you must understand that it is possible to prepare for just about any interruption. But the operative word here is prepare.  A lot of people are proud of the fact that they can procrastinate preparing until the morning of their presentation.  That kind of last-minute focus on your performance gives your brain little time to let things really sink in.  It’s one thing to memorize, but it’s quite another to really know something.  This is a key point because you can regroup quite easily if your material has been internalized.  You will most likely struggle more if words have simply been memorized.

             Second, in order to prepare well for the unexpected,  you need to know only three things about your presentation:  the beginning, the middle and the end.  Wow—profound stuff, huh?  When I first started out in broadcasting, a more experienced broadcaster shared with me this “rule of 3’s” which sounds simple, but it was precisely that simplicity that allowed him to speak as long, or as short as the producer needed.  No matter what chaos was being fed through my friend’s earpiece, he could always calmly adjust on the fly because he knew where to start, where to go, and where to end.  The “rule of 3” is a good rule for anything you want to remember such as 3 points that need to be made in the middle.    “Threes” are an easy grouping for the mind to grasp.

            And last, most professional speakers have a prepared list of “comebacks” for just about any interruption they can possibly anticipate, and these are of course, committed to memory.  The more experienced the speaker, the longer the list.  It’s amazing just how many different kinds of unexpected interruptions are waiting to frustrate the unsuspecting speaker!  Start working on your own list, something you might keep stored somewhere on your phone so it is always with you to review.

            A few years ago, I was in the audience when the Osmond Brothers performed for several thousand people at a convention.  Suddenly, there was a popping sound, and then all their microphones went dead.  In fact, all the electricity on stage had blown out, leaving the brothers with no music or amplification.  Almost before I had a chance to assess the dilemma of a concert with no electricity, one of the brothers yelled out for all to hear, "Now you can hear what we sounded like before the agents found us!”.  And they proceeded to sing “a capella”, with no accompaniment, until the power came back on.  It was that response to the unexpected that made for the most memorable part of the concert.

           When the world is staring at you and waiting impatiently (or so it seems) for you to fix the error, not many of us are gifted with the natural ability to turn the situation into a humorous one.  Even the ability to turn a negative into a positive right away is a rare talent.  Most of us have to think about how to best react, how to best deal with the situation.  Very often, by the time we’ve thought clearly about how to handle the situation, the opportunity for doing so has passed. 

            That’s why your preparation for the unexpected and overwhelming feeling of panic in the spotlight is so critical. That will make all the difference in the world.  Then, in the moments before you enter the beam of an audience’s complete attention, you can lean on the knowledge that you did everything possible to be ready for anything and now, it’s just time to let go.

Comments? You can contact me directly via my ExecRanks profile.

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