I recently met a young businesswoman who confided in me that she has a perpetual problem with nerves. She said that whenever she has to face an audience, she goes to the front of the room clutching a stack of note cards and shuts her eyes before speaking. When she speaks, she looks only at her cards. When I asked if that reduces her anxiety, all she would say was, “It gets me through.”
Murray Perahia, one of the most acclaimed classical pianists in the field, has learned to conquer stage fright—unlike his mentor, the legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, “One thing Mr. Perahia seems not to have absorbed from Horowitz is the latter’s legendary stage fright.”
Stage fright is, indeed, the stuff of fearsome legend, affecting the public appearances of musicians, actors, and our particular area of interest—public speakers. The cold, clammy hand of dread that grips speakers with such paralyzing power is so pervasive that it has given rise to an entire industry of providers offering relief. If you search the web for the fear of public speaking, you’ll find hundreds of millions of entries offering remedies.
Although there are a great number and variety of solutions, the problem remains unsolved because the vast majority of them are purely physical solutions—in the case of the young businesswoman above, it is not looking at the audience—to what is not a purely physical problem. The fear of public speaking is caused by a presenter’s fear of failure. So unless that mental fear is allayed, physical cures will not work.
Murray Perahia’s solution is to concentrate on his music and not on his nerves. “Communication is a very strong part of art. And to get it, one needs to play it, to live it,” he told the WSJ. The article concludes, “[A]udiences typically savor his legendary concentration and unassailable technique in hushed form—granting him a degree of respect not always afforded other, equally famous artists.”
To bring concentration from the concert stage to the podium, use Suasive’s Mental Method of Presenting. Succinctly stated, the method involves shifting your mental focus. Don’t think about how you are doing—whether you succeed or fail—but on how your audience is reacting to you. You can then respond to what you observe by either pausing to adjust your content or moving forward. This simple shift of concentration puts you in control and, in doing so, reduces your fear of public speaking.
I gave the same suggestion to the businesswoman: I told her to open her eyes and read her audience instead of her notes. That mere summary of the Mental Method brought an immediate sigh of relief and a smile to her face.
Imagine what will happen when she—and you—concentrate on controlling your audience and not your nerves. You will go from feeling out of control to being in control of your presentation and audience.
This blog is based on an excerpt from my book Presentations In Action published by Pearson. Also check out my newly released Presentation Trilogy—Presenting to Win, The Power Presenter, and In the Line of Fire—available on Amazon and other retailers.