How to Deal With "Stage Fright"
Sooner or later activists will be called upon to give talks and presentations. I was once so afraid of this that even the prospect of introducing myself at the beginning of a meeting was enough to send me into a panic attack. Most people are afraid of public speaking and making presentations. Winston Churchill used to get so upset before talks that he often vomited before he went on the stage even though his oratory was so effective that it saved his country.
When a human becomes frightened by anything, the body instantly produces adrenalin and other chemicals in the blood stream. We are programmed by millions of years of evolution to go to total mobilization for fight or flight when danger appears. The "butterflies in the stomach" are the way we experience this chemical mobilizing our whole system for a physical conflict. It is probably the feeling that our ancestors felt when awakened from a sound sleep by the growl of a sabre toothed tiger outside their cave. Without this automatic and instinctive response to danger we would not have survived down to the present day.
Since we are not about to run from the room or engage in physical combat with our adversaries the problem is how to dissipate this adrenalin. The trick is to find a way to physically move around - even slightly or do something of a routine nature till it dissipates. Because if no physical danger is around it always will subside.
If you have to speak in front of people try to move around a little before you have to say your first words. This will allow some of the adrenalin to dissipate. For example:
- Walk to the front of the room to a podium instead of speaking from your place. Sit where a short walk is necessary.
- Bring handouts and walk around and distribute them before your talk begins.
- Use a prepared flip chart and put it to the side of the room where the first thing you have to do is walk over and get it and bring it to the place you are speaking from.
- If you can't move around reach down and pull up on the bottom of your chair with both hands.
- Start your talk by telling the audience that you aren't used to public speaking and are nervous. This will create immediate rapport with your audience because 90% of them have the same problem.
- Memorize the first few lines of your talk so you can deliver them on automatic pilot.
Rehearse your talk. If you have to give testimony before hearings, practice roleplaying with members of your group taking the part of hostile questioners. Physically set up practice sessions to approximate real conditions. Government employees do this routinely. It is not uncommon for government witnesses to spend days rehearsing for important hearings. This is one reason they keep their cool no matter what happens. Another is the briefing books they bring to every hearing, they contain responses to every possible hostile question they might have to answer.
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©1997 Jim Britell
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