I have been making my living on stage for a long time, first as a musician and now as a speaker. I am pretty comfortable up on stage. But there was a time when my nerves ruled my life, a time when I was so scared to get up on stage that I would spend hours awake at night worrying about it.
Funny thing is, I didn’t start out that way. I didn’t have those nerves until I got into university. Before that, I was a loud-mouthed kid who loved telling jokes, and getting up on stage at a moment’s notice. I was always hungry for the spotlight.
If you’re scared to speak in public, I bet there was a time when you weren’t. Maybe you were a carefree kid and then something happened to make you self-conscious about speaking in public.
That’s what happened to me, and then I figured out how to overcome it.
Get out of your head.
Statistics show that 74% of people would prefer not to speak in public.
The trouble with being nervous while you’re trying to present something is that you spend a lot of time in your own head. I remember feeling like I had a person sitting on my shoulder, pestering and interrupting me every few seconds. It was a running commentary on how I was doing, what I was messing up and what scary part was coming up next. I was destined for failure.
Whether it’s in a musical situation or speaking to a group of people, nerves make it incredibly difficult to pay attention to the people you need to be connecting with. Sweaty palms, dry throat, red face, I have had it all. I remember one audition I did where I couldn’t even get my voice to work.
If you were a Seinfeld fan, you might remember the episode when Jerry said, "Most people at a funeral would prefer to be in the coffin than to be giving the eulogy".
I wasn’t always nervous.
I played the drums in the high school band in small town Ontario. I took to it pretty quickly but I was naïve, over-confident, and probably even arrogant. I had won local awards and even had some good paying gigs by the time I was 16. Can you say “big fish, very small pond”?
Then I got the shock. When I got into music school in the big city, I got taken down a peg or two. Everyone in my program was much better than I was. They had tons of experience. I found myself at the bottom of the pecking order. I was told my sense of time was awful (a real problem for a drummer) and my technique needed to be fixed badly.
This shattered my confidence, to say the least. I loved playing and wanted nothing more than to be a musician, and now I felt like everything I had done before was essentially worthless. I was in despair, but had no choice but to do the work to fix things up.
I had to learn to hold my sticks a different way and learn to make a good sound. I had to re-learn, yes, to hit a drum and yes, there’s a good and a bad sound you can get.
I practiced hard and did painfully slow technical exercises monitoring my every movement. (I can only equate it to doing rehab after an injury). Despite my progress, I always felt behind. When I had a private lesson, my nerves were so bad that my hands would shake uncontrollably.
Getting up on stage was even worse. My knees would knock together and that, along with my shaky hands, made me feel like I was doing some kind of involuntary dance. This makes note accuracy on a xylophone next to impossible I can assure you. So I played a lot of bass drum. You know - the really big drum you hit with one stick. I was good at that.
Use your mind. Don’t let your mind use you.
I was not about to give up despite being told I should. And then, with the help of some supporters and advisors, I found some solutions. I realized that in order to persevere, I had to work on my head and my heart as much as my hands. It wasn’t going to be easy but it was possible.
How I fixed it.
First, I began to explore the psychological world of being on stage through research. A book that helped me a great deal at the time was “The Inner game of Tennis” by W. Timothy Gallway. With this book and advice from other people, I devised several exercises to calm my nerves.
Here are some of the things I did:
I did deep breathing before I played or practiced.
I practiced in front of a mirror and hung a sign on the mirror with the word “Relax” written on it in BIG LETTERS.
I planned my practice time very carefully. I typically practiced a given instrument for 90 minutes or 120 minutes max. In that time I would take a short break every 20 to 25 minutes. I’d get up and leave the room, go get a drink or go for a walk. This way I could keep up my intensity and focus for that two-hour session. By the time I was in my 3rd and 4th years, I was consistently practicing 6 to 8 hours spread out over the day.
And of course, I focused on the content. Because I was playing a piece of music instead of making a speech, I connected emotionally to the music by making up a story to go with it. I filled my mind with images as I went through the piece. I could even work through the images in my head when I wasn’t close to my instrument.
I would visualize the places where I would be playing, even visit them before if I could. I would visualize my set up, the rehearsal, my performance, the people I would be playing with, what the audience was like and of course, the applause.
And I was always well prepared. I practiced as much as I could. How do you know how much to work on something before you present it? The answer is simple – you work on it until it’s easy.
Thanks to all these methods of working, I became very comfortable on stage. Of course, successful performance after successful performance helps, along with years of experience. Since that time when I won over nervousness, the stage is one of my most favourite places to be.
The best still prepare - a lot!
Very few people have the innate ability to wow an audience without any preparation. There are very few natural born speakers or musicians. Many great performers still get very nervous. If presenting in public is something you want to do or have to do in your job, then approaching it very methodically will work.
Nerves never go away completely. I am not sure I’d call them nerves but I still feel excited before I’m about to hit the stage and I think that’s a good thing. Whatever I’m feeling gets my heart pumping a little faster, my adrenalin going, and adds a little pep to my delivery.
I never take the preparing part for granted. It’s still the most important thing I do to remain confident and deliver a great performance.
I recently heard that Steve Martin still prepares for several weeks before an appearance on Saturday Night Live, which is amazing considering you’d think he could just wing it and we’d probably be in stitches.
So if you need to get up in front of folks, start small. Learn a joke perhaps (one you know will work) and tell it to a small group. Always practice in front of a mirror and be relaxed. Involve your head and your heart and eventually you’ll be just fine. I know for sure that those things have helped me be comfortable in front of some very large audiences
Got a story about getting up in front of a group of people where you overcame your nerves? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.