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When I began teaching public speaking all those many moons ago, I came across a book from 1977 called The Book of Lists. I can still remember reading it for the first time and being quite taken aback by the author’s list of fears, which had the ever-present fear of death as the second most common fear. What could be worse than death? Believe it or not, it was public speaking and stage fright.

Trust me when I say the gap between these two fears wasn’t close. Nothing should cause us to say, “I’m more afraid of that than dying.” And yet, stage fright from public speaking dwarfs the fear of dying — and it still rings true today for millions of people. 

What is stage fright? It is a type of anxiety that describes feeling anxious when speaking or performing in front of people. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, stage fright impacts approximately 73% of the population, and it’s exacerbated by the knowledge that, inevitably, we all have to do some form of public speaking in our daily work lives — whether we want to or not. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been handed the microphone to present in front of 5,000 people or pitch an idea to one or two key investors. You could be raising your hand to ask a question in class, preparing to speak to the boss, or delivering bad news to an employee. 

Stage fright exists in every imaginable scenario, forcing you to look over your shoulder and second-guess yourself constantly.

Then the telltale symptoms come into play (if they haven’t already):

  • Voice trembling
  • Heart racing
  • Sweaty palms
  • Dry mouth
  • Tight shoulders
  • Difficulty thinking clearly
  • Blurry vision
  • Nausea 
  • Inability to perform

The good news is that you can learn to manage your stage fright and improve your communication skills in the process.

What Everyone Should Know About Stage Fright

Mark Twain once said, “There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars.” Personally, I’ve never had issues with stage fright. Call me a liar if you want, but I mean that honestly. That said, I recognize that I am clearly in the minority on this one. Not only do I have colleagues and other leaders I know who routinely say, “I think I did well, but man, my heart was beating out of my chest. I was so nervous,” but I’ve also done more than my fair share of helping students recognize stage fright, find ways to overcome it, and improve their communication skills. 

Below are a few things I’ve learned during that time and shared with them: 

  • Stage fright is incredibly common and impacts the best of us — While stage fright generally decreases with age and experience, it doesn’t always play out that way. I can think of seasoned entertainers and performers like Carly Simon, who suffered immensely from stage fright and would faint between concerts. She told the audience at one of her shows, “I’m scared, and I need your help.” She then pulled people on stage to make it a more comfortable setting. John Kennedy was one of the best orators of all time. And yet, he routinely hid one hand in his coat pocket because it constantly shook when he spoke in public, and he didn’t want anyone to see that. Athletes, actors, musicians, and even your colleagues who look like they’ve got their act together and aren’t affected by stage fright report instances of feeling insecure or anxious.
  • Stage fright can be triggered in any performance setting — You might think you can avoid doing presentations, but stage fright can happen during job interviews, class presentations, meetings, small talk with strangers, and even speeches and toasts. 
  • Stage fright is rarely detrimental — The symptoms mentioned above are minor physiological symptoms. They are in our heads and can be managed. When we focus on them too much, they could become detrimental. 
  • The audience rarely detects our stage fright — Many people I speak to think that their symptoms of stage fright are noticeable to the audience. This is rarely the case; if they do notice, it is usually only during the first third of the presentation. The most frequently seen symptom is a slight quiver in the voice and possibly a sweaty brow. 
  • The audience is more in your corner than you think — Perhaps you had a bad experience in junior high and were laughed at by the kids in your class, and now you carry that with you into even the smallest of speaking presentations. It’s important to remember that the audience is on your side. They want to learn from you and hear what you have to say. 

What Can We Do About Stage Fright?

  1. If you routinely experience dry mouth, consider having water or tea close by to sip on.
  2. Speak about topics you are an expert in. The more you know about the subject, the less stage fright you’ll experience.
  3. Prepare as much as possible. The more prepared you are, the more confident you’ll be.
  4. Practice as much as possible. Athletes are constantly working to replicate the game experience in practice so that they perform at a high level when the game comes. The same is true for you. Put yourself in that setting and practice well in advance. Your symptoms of stage fright may never go away completely, but practicing gives you a better handle on everything. 

The last tip is crucial, and the good news is that help is out there. Your organization's success is paramount to how well you communicate as leaders and perform as a public speaker — regardless of how large or small your audience is. This is where tools such as TalkMeUp can help. TalkMeUp is innovative, one-of-a-kind software that profoundly addresses stage fright and related communication shortcomings by leveraging AI for instant measurement, analysis, reporting, tracking, scaling, and more. 

Like having a public speaking coach on speed dial, TalkMeUp gives you the feedback you need to understand how you communicate — all in real-time. As you practice more with TalkMeUp and do things differently, this practice becomes who you are, and your stage fright may become a thing of the past. To me, that’s the best feature. You can practice with TalkMeUp repeatedly and track your progress. As you begin to see changes in how you communicate, and TalkMeUp backs those thoughts up with accurate data, others will see you as a leader who speaks passionately and confidently in any setting.

Interested in seeing how TalkMeUp could help you overcome stage fright? Book a time for a brief demonstration.

About the Author
Ron Placone, Ph.D., is an Associate Teaching Professor of Business Management Communication and the Former Faculty Lead and Interim Executive Director for the Accelerate Leadership Center at the Tepper School of Business. Ron teaches a range of communication courses and leadership programs for Tepper students. Ron’s research interests include civility in discourse and fostering individual and team creativity. Previously at Carnegie Mellon, Ron was the Assistant Vice President for Learning & Development. Before joining Carnegie Mellon in 1999, Ron was Vice President and Director of Organizational Development and Communications for Mellon Network Services. Ron has been a consultant, leadership, and communication coach for numerous executives and corporate and not-for-profit organizations. He has consulted in health care, financial services, education, technology, and energy sectors. Ron has a Ph.D. in Rhetoric-English from Carnegie Mellon University.