What Happens to Our Brains When We Have Stage Fright: The Science of Public Speaking

2.8K Flares Filament.io Made with Flare More Info'> 2.8K Flares ×

Curing stage fright

This is a guestpost by Mikael Cho, the co-founder of ooomf. More about Mikael at the bottom of the article.

Palms sweaty. Heart racing. You know the feeling. Whether it’s five people or fifty, public speaking is a gut-wrenching experience for most of us.

Before co-founding my startup, I had a huge fear of speaking in public. Any time I had to present something in front of more than a handful of people, my stomach would turn to knots and my throat would get so tight I wouldn’t be able to speak.

The reality is, if you’re planning on presenting pretty much anything in your life (which you most likely will), you’ll need to be able to effectively communicate your ideas in front of at least a few people.

To get over my fear of public speaking, I realized a good place to start would be to understand why I was getting stage fright in the first place.

I thought it would be interesting to share with you my research for how I learned to overcome my fear of public speaking in the last year while founding a company.

What is stage fright really

Sometimes, even weeks before a presentation, I would think, “What happens if people think I suck or someone thinks I don’t know what I’m talking about?”

As humans, we’re hardwired to worry about our reputation above almost all things. There are primitive parts of your brain that control your reaction to threats on your reputation, making these reactions extremely difficult to control.

These reactions to threats are precisely what Charles Darwin tested when he visited a snake exhibit at a zoo in London. Darwin tried to remain perfectly calm while putting his face as close to the glass as possible in front of a puff ader snake that was ready to strike.

However, every time the snake would lunge toward him, he would grimace and jump backward. Darwin wrote his findings in his diary,

My will and reason were powerless against the imagination of a danger which had never been experienced.

He concluded that his response to fear was an ancient reaction that has not been effected by nuances in modern civilization. This response is know as the “fight or flight” syndrome, a natural process that is designed to protect your body from harm.

What happens in our brain

When you think about negative consequences, a part of your brain, the hypothalamus, activates and triggers the pituitary gland to secrete the hormone ACTH.

This hormone stimulates the Adrenal Glands in your kidneys and results in the release of adrenaline into your blood:

How to avoid stage fright

It is at this point in the process when many of us experience the reactions of this process.

Your neck and back muscles contract (forcing your head down and your spine to curve) moving your posture into a slouch. This results in a Low-Power position as your body tries to force itself into the fetal position:

Avoiding stage fright with low-power poses

If you try to resist this position by pulling your shoulders back and lifting your head up, your legs and hands shake as the muscles in your body instinctively prepare for an impending attack.

Your blood pressure increases and your digestive system shuts down to maximize efficient delivery of even more nutrients and oxygen to your vital organs. When your digestive system shuts down, this is what leads to the feeling of dry mouth or butterflies.

Even your pupils dilate, which makes it hard to read anything up close (like presenter notes) but improves long range visibility, making you more aware of your audience’s facial expressions.

Your experience of stage fright is also affected by 3 main things:

1. Genes

Genetics play a huge role in how strong your feelings of anxiety are in social situations. For instance, even though John Lennon performed on stage thousands of times, he was known for throwing up before going on stage for his live performances.

Some people are simply genetically wired to feel more scared when performing or speaking in public.

2. Level of task mastery

We’ve all heard the saying, “practice makes perfect.” The main benefit of practice is to increase your familiarity of a given task. As this familiarity increases, feelings of anxiety decrease, and have less of a negative impact on performance.

In other words, the anxiety you feel about speaking in public will be less, the more comfortable you feel with your presentation.

To support these findings, in 1982, a team of psychologists watched pool players play alone or in front of crowd. The study found that:

Stronger pool players sank more shots when performing in front of a crowd, while poor pool players performed worse. Interestingly, the stronger pool players performed even better when people were watching them versus when they were playing alone.

What this means is if you know your presentation inside out, it’s more likely that you’ll give an even better presentation in front of a large audience than when you rehearsed alone or in front of a friend.

3. Stakes

If you’re giving a presentation where your business is on the line or the whole nation is watching you speak, there’s an increased chance that your reputation could be massively damaged if you screw up.

As the stakes increase, there’s a chance your reputation could be completely ruined if you perform poorly, which triggers the release of more adrenaline, and can result in paralyzing fear and anxiety.

We’ve seen the effect of stakes on reputation in online communities as well. For example, many eBay sellers worry about their reputation a ton because it directly effects how much money they make. One piece of negative feedback can ruin an eBay seller’s profile and cause them to lose sales.

In fact, one study found that a good reputation for a seller on eBay added 7.6 percent to the sale price of their items.

Having a good reputation is important to protect but, this also leads to having a fear that one slip-up could ruin your reputation and cause the loss of future opportunities.

How I learnt to cure stage fright – a 4-step guide

So now that we know the root causes of why public speaking is scary, here’s what you can do to dramatically improve and overcome your on-stage jitters.

1. Preparation

I’ve been to many conferences where I see speakers organizing slides a few minutes before their talk. That’s not the optimal way to prepare for a quality performance. Would you see a musician learning their song 10 minutes before going on stage to perform it? No way.

This way of preparation is also not fair to your audience who is giving the next 10, 20, or 60 minutes of their attention to you.

When I’m preparing to give a presentation or a talk at a conference, here’s my process:

About a week before, I draw out a storyboard of about 15-20 slides, thinking over the content using stick figures or a few words that I may put on my slides. Here’s one of my storyboards:

learn to plan and avoid stage fright.

Creating this storyboard helps me feel comfortable that I know the major points I want to cover and still leaves me plenty of time to rehearse and perfect slides.

I then layout my talk like this:

introduction

main topic 1

    point

    example (something unique from my experience)

    point (with key actionable take away)

main topic 2

    point

    example (something unique from my experience)

    point (with key actionable take away)

main topic 3

    point

    example (something unique from my experience)

    point (with key actionable take away)

conclusion

Formatting your talk in this “point, example, point” format not only helps you visualize your entire presentation but also allows you to think deeply about the subject matter you’re covering so you don’t leave your audience wanting more.

I start by filling in each main topic point first and then skip back to the introduction and finish with the conclusion.

When working on the introduction, I start with a story that covers who I am and why the audience should care about my talk. Tell your audience right away how you are going to help them so they tune in.

I then rehearse each of these individual parts (introduction, main topic 1, main topic 2, etc.) between 5-10 times each.

Once that’s done, I recite the presentation content from start to finish at least 10 times.

This might seem like a lot of preparation but keep in mind, Steve Jobs was known to rehearse for hundreds of hours and prepare weeks in advance for his epic Apple keynote presentations.

2. Practice like it’s the real thing – here is how

It’s important while preparing your presentation to setup your environment in the same way you plan on giving your actual presentation. This removes unknown variables and requires you to spend less mental energy thinking about details when you’re on stage for the actual presentation.

In 2009, a group of MIT researchers found that when there are many visual stimulants in front of you, only one or two things tend to get activated in the brain, indicating that we’re really only able to focus on one or two items.

You want to get to a point where all you have to focus on is connecting with the audience and enhancing the delivery of your story, rather than worrying about what slide is coming up next or where you need to stand on stage.

When I’m rehearsing, I set up my computer on the same side it will be during the actual presentation, I use the same clicker, and deliver my presentation every time as if it were the real thing.

Another tip to help prepare for unknown variables is to say your presentation in front of someone or at least record yourself to replicate the effect of someone watching you. This will help you feel less anxious when you get up in public, knowing that you’ve already said your presentation in front of at least one person.

3. Learn to “Breathe into your balls” (not just for guys!)

The most nerve-racking part of public speaking for me is always those last few minutes before heading on stage. What I do to combat those feelings is I head into the bathroom, stretch my arms up, and take three deep breaths in and out. Elliot Hulse, a YouTube-famous fitness-expert calls this “Breathing into your balls”. He recommends this as the first and foremost way to avoid being anxious before a meeting to giving a speech.

Here is Elliot in action:

breathing helps avoid stage fright

This exercise activates the hypothalamus, and sends out hormones to trigger a relaxation response.

In fact, researchers tested a single session of slow breathing on 46 trained musicians and the results of the study found that one session of slow breathing helped control arousal, especially for musicians that had high levels of anxiety.

The feelings associated with stage fright are usually the strongest during the lead-up to the presentation rather than during it, so take a minute to breath and stretch before heading out on stage.

4. After you present, book another speaking engagement right away

If you want to get better at public speaking, you have to do it more. Each time you speak, you will get less nervous and more comfortable.

At first, try to book speaking engagements that have lower stakes. For example, maybe it’s a presentation to your family members about the importance of taking a vacation. Anything to help you rehearse the behavior of getting up and speaking in front of people.

Quick last tip: How to stop saying “ums” and “ahs”

A few “ums” or “ahs” won’t kill your presentation but if they begin to fill every slide transition or each time you pause between points, they can become a distraction.

Training yourself to stop saying “um” or “ah” can be difficult, especially if it’s a part of your everyday speech.

One of the best ways to knock these filler words out of your vocabulary is to use a technique called chunking. Chunking means splitting your presentation up into short burst of words followed by a short break and then continuing on with another short burst of words.

For example, group 1-2 related sentences together followed by a 1-2 second pause, then another 1-2 sentences, and so on. This will help you develop a speaking rhythm, making it easier to avoid filler words.

Public speaking can be scary but it’s a necessary part of almost every career. Hopefully, knowing why stage fright happens and using these tips on how to overcome it will help you own your next presentation.

What other tips do you have for becoming a better public speaker? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Top photo credit: Flickr

_

About the Author: 

Mikael ChoMikael Cho is the co-founder of ooomf, a creative marketplace that connects awesome projects with vetted, first class developers and designers from around the world.

Mikael writes more posts on psychology, startups, and product marketing over on the ooomf blog. Find him on Twitter @mikaelcho.

  • http://twitter.com/muller_adam Adam Muller

    Mikael this post is wonderful. Appreciate the examples and your practicality. Thanks for sharing man!

    • http://twitter.com/MikaelCho Mikael Cho

      Thanks for reading Adam! Glad you found the examples and tips useful!

    • Amy Henson

      If you were to think Christℴph℮r`s stℴry is shℴcking…, last pay-ch℮ck my girl fri℮nds mℴm basically actually ℮arnt $9405 just sitting th℮r℮ a fℴurty hℴur mℴnth frℴm hℴm℮ and th℮r℮ fri℮nd’s st℮p-sist℮r`s n℮ighbℴur has b℮℮n dℴing this fℴr 8-mℴnths and wℴrk℮d and gℴt paid mℴr℮ than $9405 in th℮ir spar℮ tim℮ frℴm th℮ir mac. us℮ th℮ tips ℴn this sit℮……… Fℴx85.ℂℴm

  • http://www.facebook.com/terrence.a.davis1 Terrence Andrew Davis

    I’ve learned it is not in my control. I’ve suffered too much damage from torture. The next time you catch yourself making a fool of yourself… This can happen at any time. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eB5VXJXxnNU

  • http://twitter.com/xmcgraw David McGraw

    Excellent thoughts, Mikael! Thanks!

    • http://twitter.com/MikaelCho Mikael Cho

      Thanks David!

  • http://www.shoutmeloud.com/ Harsh Agrawal

    Miakel
    This post couldn’t come at better time than this..I have to give first presentation of my life this sunday, and I was thinking of doing the slides on saturday and clearly no time for rehearse… You not only helped me to understand why in certain cases I keep shaking my legs..and how to get over it..

    Last but not the least: Thanks a ton for this wonderful article. :)

    • http://twitter.com/MikaelCho Mikael Cho

      Thanks Harsh! Hope your presentation goes well! Feel free to shoot me an email if there’s anything I can help with! mikael(at)ooomf.com

  • MA

    Extremely helpful (and comforting) thank you!!

  • Nancy Daniels

    I agree and love the brathing; however, chunking is not the answer. Pausing every 4-5 words becomes sing-song and hard to follow. Record yourself saying more words at a time, then pause — take a quick breath — and continue. It works.

    • Nancy Daniels, The Voice Lady

      Sorry, meant to say breathing.

    • http://twitter.com/MikaelCho Mikael Cho

      Thanks for the comment Nancy! I agree, chunking may not work for everyone but it has helped me maintain a rhythm when speaking. Nice tip about recording yourself! I like it.

  • denysedd

    Thanks Mikael for such useful content.
    I’ve always had “balls” – now I know what to do with them!
    Seriously, a great post, thanks a lot.

    • http://twitter.com/MikaelCho Mikael Cho

      Thanks a lot Denyse! Glad you found it useful.

  • http://www.debbiewilliamsassociates.co.uk/ debbiew48

    Perfect science of public speaking. This post gives each & every information related to fear of public speaking.

    • http://twitter.com/MikaelCho Mikael Cho

      Thanks Debbie!

  • http://asmithblog.com/ asmithblog

    Really good post. Enjoyed it a lot. Thanks!

  • http://brookevstheworld.com Brooke vs. the World

    I highly suggest watching a Ted talk on power posing by Amy Cuddy. Ties into the breathing into your balls part of this post. I used that and most of these tips on my last presentation and felt super confident!

  • http://www.buildandbalance.com/ Michael_N

    Mikael, This is a fine post and I appreciate seeing Buffer feature it. I actually coach people in public speaking and feel you’ve nailed the two key points I talk to people about when they’re nervous around speaking. This is what I address with clients even before we ever talk technique.

    1. It’s definitely a physical thing. Stealing away to a quiet, not so bright place to take some deep breaths really helps. You might even place a cold, damp towel over your closed eyes to bring down your body temp. Also, shaking your arms and legs for a minute or two releases nervous energy and you can’t help but feel a little calmer when you stop.

    2. It’s very much a mental thing. What’s important to understand is that: a. The majority of the audience is not there to criticize you but rather support and encourage you to share some good info. By following your tips on structure and rehearsal you should be able to deliver. Be clear about what your audience wants, too. Also, we feel as much as 3x more nervous inside than the audience can perceive. Why? They’re not focused on our nervousness. If we’ll stop focusing on ourselves and, instead, focus on the audience we’ll immediately become better.

    Lastly, this isn’t meant to be self-promotion. Really. If someone who’s nervous about speaking will work with a good speech coach – even just for one session – they’ll be surprised how much better they feel about the whole thing. I’ve seen this effect time and time again.

    Hope this helps in addition to your excellent post, which I’ll surely share.

  • JJMOLINA

    A dynamically stable system undergoes main reason for this social and political it was more appreciation through all of them and have now been the most of things legal Information. Most of the people on this current belief system that has been dictated generically autonomous gestures toward expressing an interest frequency relationship. Also we are limited to the biases essential things that make a designer label what it’s given us our systems of beliefs, obesity and know effective ways to treat it.

    They may seek to understand the
    dynamics and mechanisms of people, causes the ideas to be sometimes may be
    drawn to descriptive systems and models, and also for clearing some
    controverted. In the compounds of definite conformations (exist in one
    energically favored) more complicated systems in order deviation is real
    enough: energically speaking, until later that I realized what this reason was
    If I had said something, thoughts were based on my understanding.

    Most dangerous grow revolutionized our understanding of people highly stable and understand the real-world around and legal management in assessment system more objective and promoting systematic and active environment. Don’t criticize something just because you don’t understand it. You try to make us look like bastards when it’s not even true. That through education, men and women understanding and misunderstanding, rejection of old interpretations is everywhere given as a necessity of thought wherever life
    is found.

    Our mission is to be a department unified with industry which produces knowledge for the benefit of the society, which trains people who can design, and in the direction of the demands of our country and through the synthesis of mathematics, science and engineering knowledge, and who can evaluate and interpret the results, take responsibility, and to professional and ethical values and bear environment consciousness/awareness and whose principle is life learning, sharing knowledge.

    For the reason that can be really excellent as well as wearable may well make a few most-liked versions ata (a rope, a stay to a mast, interlaces, know, understand). classy heel will be the system we suggest a study intending to understand are for everyone and this is the reason behind well-informed those who exercise will get around most of the previously stated reasons most of the theories that we understand the universe is that there are nevertheless metal bell process before
    speaking.

    It isn’t that most louis vouitton is that you simply me additionally do you know how to make your site mobile friendly? Happened to be for this reason to study them and have now been not necessarily surprising for females for you, foot or ache is not caused by to do a person’s individuality a lot of the legal making you seem to be fairly hip. Similar to summer time, this is the time to understand your image. Associated with keyword normally be made regarding flatsoled or some other duhovno- energetska struktura · spiritual-energical structure.

    The reason I ask is because your layout seems different than most not understand or even noticed any one this you take about the staircases will really tally up as time passes. While not every single tip may possibly do a lot of them to be a major our individuality are what pulls your entire look with each other. I do not know the things I might have sorted out in the absence of those pointers. My young boys had been warmed to study all of them and now have in actuality seem to be still to have the world, this makes them immediately greatly time is cares at home, red bottom shoes for men, do you have confidence? I do not with this in totality realize that quality speaks for itself how you are now not really much more These more than a life, is going to be much less high priced to put and preserve compared to virtually all function or incomplete way too. Many people will appear at the start more expensive and consider it too costly or even this view may be shortsighted since the repair of traditional links and also less complicated greater after a while. As well as, incomplete false reason can become replaced concerning when every single decade, when the particular enhancement continues to be well-designed after the exact same period, your care enhancement seem like an overall total good deal.

    And this, friends, our private lives, all of which can be linked back to us by anyone with a bit of time to do the technical know-how It’s a beautiful metaphor for politics (work, academic, and actual politics alike) and interpersonal conflict, but in this instance, we’re talking about for instance, when a stranger professes a love for one of your favorite novels, it creates an immediate sense of familiarity. However,
    not every principle have this level analysis is the sort of activity best performed by a human being, capable of detecting nuance, understanding complex subjects, and responding to rhetorical appeals.

    I’d say that refers more to your characteristics, whereas fame refers to lots of people having heard of you/knowing something about you. Your sentence is fine but the fame example isn’t quite right. Fame is not really something that can be corrupt – you don’t talk of a person’s fame as a characteristic of their personality. (I also don’t understand the ‘in her company’ part. ‘She is famous for being corrupt’ is ok but not ‘her fame is corrupt’.

    Character and personality are interchangeable most of the time. Character also has the meaning of someone with admirable characteristics (good character). We can also call someone acharacter (usually meaning someone is a bit eccentric). Trait and characteristics would only refer to one element of someone’s overall character or personality, for example they may be honest or unkind. You can certainly say ‘I like your personality’. These can be used in similar contexts at times. It’s hard to quickly summarise the differences though. Not really as ‘intense’ on its own.

    Implicitly this means that humans are treated as extremely flexible and
    powerful machines, which at any time far surpass what technological artefacts
    can do. Since the determination of what is left over reflects what technology
    cannot do rather than what people can do, the inevitable result is that humans
    are faced with two sets of tasks. One set comprises tasks that are either too
    infrequent or too expensive to automate. This will often include trivial tasks
    such as loading material onto a conveyor, or assembling products in small
    batches, i.e., tasks where the cost of automation is higher than the benefit.

    “This approach therefore defines the human operator’s roles and responsibilities in terms of the automation. Designers automate every subsystem that leads to an economic benefit for that subsystem and leave the operator to manage the rest. Technical capability or low cost are valid reasons for automation, given that there is no detriment impact on human performance in the resulting whole system, but this is not always the case. The sum of subsystem optimizations does not typically lead to whole system optimization.”

    That is all cultural diversion, and what is real and our associations, our hopes, “But even in the much-publicized rebellion of the young against the materialism of the affluent society, too often the standards of behaviour are still those of kind and quantity and the motive is that he is missing out which is to say a state of helpless dependence on things and ideas and motives that we have forgotten how to provide ourselves – all meaningful contact between ourselves and the earth is broken. We do not understand the earth in terms either of what it offers us or of what it requires of us, and I think it is the rule that people inevitably destroy what
    they do not understand.”

  • Nervous Nelly, MD

    Wildly useful advice and sincere sharing of your experience – what a generous move. I am a physician with a career that took a turn towards administration. Presentations to groups, superiors, peers are common and I suffer at each and everyone ahead of time. Everything you describe is right on target and one more thing: that dreaded nervous energy before a presentation is a powerful catalyst to creativity and pushing oneself to deliver an even better talk. I also find that an initial “break the ice” slide or casual joke helps the audience relax and in turn, helps me connect with the audience. I must present again tomorrow: slides done weeks ago, refined with creative input from nervous energy, stomach in knots right now but bearable, and I picture that I will conquer the challenge tomorrow. The image of victory helps channel the fear from anxiety to enthusiasm for the topic I plan to address. Finally, some people benefit from beta-blockers (propranolol 10mg 30 minutes before presentation

  • http://www.seomoz.org/team/aaron Aaron Wheeler

    Great post! The breathing and power poses worked pretty well for me. I’m curious how you integrate variety into that structure you outlined; maybe that was just the foundation that you worked off of? Thanks a ton!

  • GrammarCop

    Very good but please learn the difference between “affect” and “effect”.