Is Stage Fright Normal and What Can Be Done?

The short answer is “Yes!” Stage Fright is Normal. I will explain why in a little bit and what you can do about it.

If you look on the Internet you will probably find a lot of different ways to overcome stage fright (or performance anxiety). A few will even state that you cannot overcome you can only deal with it. For those people who say that you can only deal with, I think have yet to find an effective solution for their specific type of stage fright.

What seems to be the problem is that there a lot of people offering solutions to Stage Fright, but very few looking at what causes it in the first place. If you don`t know the cause, then how do you know your solution is going to work? You don`t. Further even if your solution works that one time, it may not work on the second or the third.

This is because most people don`t even think about why the solution should work in the first place. “It just works” or so they say. That may be good for them, but often it just doesn’t “work” for other people. Those people then wonder why. They wonder if they didn`t do it right. (i.e. your holding it wrong) Or there is something fundamentally wrong with them. Both of these are generally not true. Most of the time the solution was not clear enough for that person or the solution just did not fit their own personal circumstances.

So, I think that it is important to understand the why we feel Stage Fright. If understand why at a fundamental level, it becomes easier to come up with solutions that work. It is also easier to judge various solutions before you try them.

Why Stage Fright is Normal

As human beings, our bodies and brains are the result of 4 million years of evolution. However, evolution just builds on what worked in the past, so there are structures of our brains that are much older than that. If we just look at our species Homo sapiens, the most recent data states that Homo sapiens have been around for 350,00 years[1].

On the other hand, the oldest city, Uruk, is only 6,000 years old. We can assume that public speaking started around then. This is because before then there were no big crowds to speak in front of. What this means is that human being have only done public speaking for about less than 2% of their existence. If you consider the time after public speaking became a profession then you are looking at 2,500 years ago (i.e. the time of Homer and the Ancient Greeks). That is way less than 1% percent.

Human beings, both physically and mentally have not changed much over the past thousands of years. However, the environment has drastically changed and continues to do so at a rapid rate. What used to be adaptive behavior in the savannahs of Africa, turn into maladaptive behavior in our modern age. One of those behaviors is part of the cause of stage fright.

For many thousands of years human beings lived in small tribes. Unlike a lot of other animals. Human beings do not have much going for them individually. They don`t have claws, they can`t run fast, etc. Think about this. If you were thrown into the wild all by yourself would you survive? Most would not. It is not because we have all grown soft in this modern age, it is because it is very difficult thing to do. What this means is that if you did something stupid to get yourself thrown out of the tribe, you chance of survival went way down.

So, this innate desire to survive is also linked to an innate desire to stick to a tribe, because it is safer. Also, this desire drives social anxiety and a fear of rejection. However, in our modern society the likelihood of any one person rejecting you and then causing you to live on the streets is very small. The likelihood that an entire audience will hate your speech causing you to lose your home, spouse, etc. is also ludicrously small. Modern society has made it possible that we can live reasonably comfortably even if some or even a lot of people reject us. However, our brains have not caught up to that fact, which causes the problems for a lot of people.

Fear Is a Signal

For too many people, they feel the fear and just want it to stop. They do not really examine where the fear is coming from and why. This is a reasonable response. After all, if you cut yourself, the first thing you think about is how to stop the pain. You take action. You stop it in the best way you know how and move on.

The more beneficial way is to after you have temporarily stopped the pain is to consider why the pain occurred in the first place. Then come up with a plan to prevent the problem from occurring again. This second part requires effort. Your brain is incredibly lazy so unless you create a habit of reflection you not likely to consider what preventive measures to take.

BTW, why is the brain lazy? This because the brain uses 20% of the body`s energy[2]. It takes less energy to stay in normal patterns of thought and routines. So, the tendency is to save energy and think less. Beside there are always a lot over crisis and distractions to keep up busy.

So, what happens is that we feel the stage fright, we do not know why, and take some kind of action. Some of will avoid the problem, some of us will plow through the problem and do badly, and some of us will face the problem and do alright.

The question becomes when you feel the fear, do you listen what it is trying to tell you? The fear is real, it may be misguided or it may be 100% right, but if you do not take the time to examine it, you do not know. If you keep ignoring it, it is just going to get worse.

Why would it get worse? Emotions are just one way of the subconscious to communicate with the conscious. If you consciously ignore what you subconscious is trying to say, it is only going to get louder. This also goes for screaming kids and troubled teens who keep escalating until people pay attention.

Anyway, your subconscious is sending you the signal of fear in order to ruin your presentation and make your life miserable. It is doing so to protect you. This could be misguided or actually a helpful.

It could be misguided in the sense that the fear is everyone in your audience will hate if you make a mistake. Even if they did, the likelihood that they will do physical violence towards you or that you will die is very very small. But, in any case you need to acknowledge that the fear exists, and recognize that things are different now.

At this point, I do not want you come away thinking that all version of stage fright are from innate fear of being rejected by a member of the “tribe.” There is another place were the fear can generate. This comes from childhood.

When we are born, for the most part we do not have any set way of viewing and interpreting the world. This is something that we learn from our parents and our experiences at a young age. It is said that our initial personalities and values are fixed at a very young age. At least no later than 7 years old according to one study[3]. This is not to say that we don`t change much after that, is it just to say that fundamental change is harder after that. 

So, if young child had a humiliating experience in front of a group at a very young age, that young child may have learned that talking in front of people = humiliation. Thus, later in life when a similar opportunity presents itself the subconscious sends the signal of fear out, to protect the child from the same humiliation.  The subconscious doesn`t know that the situation is different, and the child has grown up to be able to handle things differently.

However, the trouble is after we become adults were do not remember our childhood very well. After all, do you remember what you ate a few days ago? Probably not. So, we forget what experienced caused the fear in the first place. In some cases, people need to go professional psychotherapists to deal with the issue. But in some other cases, using the right frameworks and spending the time to get in touch with yourself can do the trick. It all depends on urgency and severity of the issue. I generally recommend trying a few simpler approaches first before, going to a professional.

Besides what I mentioned before, stage fright (or performance anxiety as it is also called) can actually have a variety of causes. Here are three:

  • Childhood trauma
  • Worry about rejection
  • Worry about making a big mistake

There are more than the ones mentioned above, but by understanding why you are afraid, you can then choose the right strategy to deal with and finally remove stage fright from your life.

Beside the nature of the cause. It also helps to consider the severity. When it comes to stage fright, I find that there are five kinds of people. Each has a different level of stage fright. These levels are:

A) You are so afraid, you avoid speaking or performing in front of groups.

B) You are afraid, but do it anyway, and perform badly.

C) You are somewhat afraid, do ok, and but wish you could feel more comfortable.

D) You are comfortable speaking in front of groups. It is not a big deal.

E) You not only enjoy but look forward to speaking or performing in front of groups.

Which level are you? Where do you want to be?

If you are either A or B you need to get out of those groups as quickly as possible. The fear is hurting you and possibly your career. You can accomplish a lot more when you learn to speak well in front of others. The first step is overcoming that fear.

From my perspective, it is realistic for a vast majority of people to at least become a D if not an E person. Yes, even if you are a self-proclaimed introvert.

I know it is possible, because it happened to me. At least according to my MBTI score, I am still an introvert. However, I also enjoy speaking in front of people. I have also seen countless of other “introverts” do the same things as I have.

Here is one strategy that will work for some people in some cases. It was a method that was developed by Dale Carnegie, and it was mentioned in his book “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.” There are four steps which are:

  1. Imagine and write down the problem or problems
  2. For each problem write out a solution
  3. For each solution write out the effect.
  4. Choose the solution that you feel is best

In our case we would imagine problems that could happen to us on stage. If you are feeling worried, as yourself what are you worried about? Take some time to write down a couple of ideas.

For example, suppose you wrote “I am afraid that I will complete forget my presentation and look like a fool in front of all those people. I am afraid that they will hate or laugh at me.” 

There are two parts to this. From my perspective the first thing you want to do is look at the fear square in the face and consider if the fear will really happen.

Granted, forgetting part of the presentation is possible. Forgetting the entire presentation is also possible, but probably not likely.  As for the part where the audience will hate or laugh, I find that very unlikely.  I cannot think of a single time when a speaker has forgotten a speech and the audience did anything that was demeaning or hurtful to the speaker.  Look back at your own experience has something like that ever happen? Most likely no.

So, what can you do? Well, you think of a) Ways to deal with situation when it does occur b) Ways of preparing so that you greatly reduce the likelihood of that problem occurring.

Considering we are talking forgetting your speech, you could brainstorm a variety of options. For example:

  1. Accept that you forgot, thank the audience and walk off the stage
  2. Make a dramatic pause while your think
  3. Adlib your way to the end

These are not all possible options you could consider. You may want to ask others if there are other options available. You may want to search Google or some other search engine to see what others have done. You may also want to imagine what well respected speakers might do. This may give more choices than you would have come up with by yourself.  

Now, let`s look at the consequences of the three mentioned above.

A) To say the least the audience will be surprised: But, you treated them with respect so there should be no hard feelings. The event planner on the other hand will probably not be happy at all. The event planner will need to think of a way to fill the time at suddenly opened up. If you know a few magic tricks now would be a good time to show them.

B) Make a dramatic pause while your think: Seems ok, but there are no guarantees that you will remember. You can use the pause to try to relax or buy thinking time. If you are under serious pressure, stress will hurt your cognitive ability so it is a good idea find someway to relax. If you do not come up with idea you need you can just do A or C.

Which brings us to:

C) Adlib your way to the end: BTW Martin Luther King, Jr. actually adlibbed the last part of his “I have a dream” speech. However, you may say that “I am no Martin Luther King.” That is true. You are not. You are you. If you practice hard enough, you might get a close result. In any case the result could be either good or bad. That depends on how well you can adlib. I recommend taking a few improv classes if you are worried

So, you have brainstormed all the possible reason for your fear. You have brainstormed all the possible action that you could be take. You have also realistically written down the possible results of those actions. Now it is time to decide what action you will take.  

How will you decide? Often, what is more important is not the decision you make, but how you make the decision. If you want to make good repeatable decisions, you need a good set of rules to make that decision.

In this case, compare all the options. You can look at the results of taking those actions, both positive and negative. You can weigh the severity of both as well as the probability of each. It may seem hard to determine the probability of each, so you can make an educated guess as to what the probability is. There are ways to determine the probability of most events but that is a much more complicated topic for another time.

So, far you have only looked at what you are going to do if you actually forget your speech on the stage. The next thing to do is think of actions you can take to prevent the problem from occurring in the first place.

You can brainstorm a variety of things you could do. For example:

  • l  Practice a lot more
  • l  Keep set of bulleted notes
  • l  Write out a mind map
  • l  Have a recording of your speech play inside a small speaker stuck in your ear, etc.

There are probably other things you could do. But, the important thing is that you took the time to really thing about what you could do. In these cases, you can estimate the amount of time of each one.  If you have some experience or know someone who does you can also estimate fairly well the effectiveness of each. By looking at the time it takes and the effectiveness you can determine which action will work the best for your situation.

Again, a lot of these start off as guesses. As you get more experience you will get a better feel of what are the best actions to take so you don`t have to worry as much about the possible failure.

We all get nervous about public speaking. This is as natural as breathing and eating. The thing is to not let this get the best of us. One method that I introduce is the method that Dale Carnegie wrote. There are others, but please try this one and see if it worked for you.  I think that you will find that help with not only stage fright, but other situation where you have performance anxiety. By mastering this method that you can walk out with the confidence that any stage you get on is a stage you can feel at home. And that my friend, is a great comfort.