Overcoming Stage Fright

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Whether it’s a boardroom or a convention center, it’s common (and normal) to have stage fright.

Volumes of books have been written about overcoming stage fright. These include books that have been written by psychologists, neuroscientists, performance coaches and more. Basically, people who are both way smarter (and way more qualified) than me to write about what happens between your ears that makes you all weak in the knees, when it comes to getting up on a stage for any kind of presentation.

What do I know?

In 2006, I was asked to speak at a full-day leadership event that featured Dr. Phil. It was an event that hosted thousands of people. While that entire day is now a blur to me, I remember a couple of distinctly powerful moments (all of them based on massive anxiety attacks). My most vivid memory is that I was following Chuck Martin. As he was onstage, I remember being behind the scenes, looking at the stage with the countdown on the confidence monitor reading fifteen minutes left, and then shifting my sights to the exit sign on the door. I was literally contemplating the idea of making a run for the exit. I let the anxiety and stress get to me. Not just in that moment, but in the weeks building up to that event.

Overcoming the fear.

How did I overcome the fear? The fact that I didn’t make a dash for the exit, took and deep breath and went for it could be an indicator that I got over my fear, but that simply isn’t the case. The truth is that I still get nervous. I’m just better at recognizing what it is and harnessing it, rather than allowing it to paralyze me. Since 2006, I have consistently given anywhere between fifty and seventy presentations a year. In training for that first big leadership event, I worked with a slew of presentation coaches and even a stand-up comedian to ensure that I was "getting it right." While I received some great techniques and tactics that elevated my presentation skills, I’ll never forget what one of my coaches said, when I told them that I was deathly nervous about the entire prospect of presenting on that stage. He looked at me, admitted that he had never coached someone who had to speak to an audience of that size but, regardless, that if I wasn’t nervous, I was "dead from the shoulders up."  

It’s not natural.

Our mind (and body) react so adversely to public speaking, because it isn’t a natural and intuitive act for humans. The true masters of speaking are the ones who make it look so natural. It’s not a gift for the majority of great presenters… it’s an act. It is something they have worked on and nurtured after many events and putting themselves in many different scenarios. So, after seven years of professional presenting (I did several events before the one with Dr. Phil, so it’s probably more years than that), I have distilled how to overcome stage fright down to two key factors. And, no, they are not about rituals, breathing techniques or the like.

  • Key factor #1: Basic presentation skills. The majority of people fear public speaking so much that they spend zero to little time learning and preparing for what the act entails. They think that if they ignore the basic skills required to deliver a message in a public forum, that they can just cram the night before, lean on a lectern and struggle their way through it or simply wing it. A presentation (of any kind) is a performance. If you don’t understand the basics of this performance: this includes everything from how the stage is set-up and flows to understanding the basics around body language and vocal delivery, you’re doomed. As scared as you may be, you will gain a ton of confidence by understanding what it’s like to walk on a stage, have proper posture and body language and working on your actual voice. Ignoring all of that will not help you overcome your fear.
  • Key factor #2: It’s all about your content. When you know your content, everything else is easy. If you put a gun to my head and said, "speak for sixty minutes about why brands need to care about their marketing," I could do it. Something tells me that if someone did the same thing to you, you could do it too. Why? Whatever industry you serve, you know your content. Presenters are usually nervous because they don’t know their content well enough. This is why people write up and then read a speech (never do this) or cram PowerPoint slides full of text (never do this either). They’re worried that they may forget something. Here’s the dirty little secret: we don’t forget the things we know.

One last truth about stage fright…

Most people don’t speak as often as I do. This means that they have no need to really study the art of presenting and, this also means that they rarely have enough time to learn their content well-enough to know it and be comfortable with it. Presentation skills coaches will try to offer up breathing techniques and other tactics to help divert your nervous energy somewhere else. Sure, those may act as band-aids while the anxiety gets the better of you, but you can (and will) get better if you understand the basics in presentation skills and take the necessary time to make yourself as comfortable as possible with your content.

What happens next?

When you take the time to learn about presentations and learn your content, the anxiety you feel changes and adapts. So, now when I get nervous, it’s mostly because I want the audience to to learn something… to be moved. It’s a different kind of anxiety and pressure that takes the doom and gloom of, "I hope they don’t judge me," into the world of, "I want to blow this crowd’s mind!" So, no, the anxiety doesn’t go away, it just becomes a positive force that will allow you to strive for a better presentation than the one you gave the day before.

What are some of the techniques that have made you a better presenter?

(special thanks to Gini Dietrich who inspired this blog post by asking me if I still get nervous when presenting during a webinar that we recorded earlier today).


  1. Mitch, I do a lot of sport – I race rowing boats. Believe me, when you’re on the start of a 6 lane race in a single scull (alone) and everyone else looks bigger and fitter than yourself, the feeling of stage fright is similar.
    Interestinly, I use the exact same technique when I do public speaking. Actually I’m more confident at public speaking than rowing but more enthusiastic about rowing than public speaking!
    My technique while waiting to go on.
    1. Breathe through your nose. The oxygen has further to travel into your lungs and back out and so more gets absorbed by your blood stream. This helps to damp down the adrenaline.
    2. Know that adrenaline helps to lift your performance. So a bit of it is a good thing. You’re more sensitive, responsive, quick thinking as a result.
    3. Once the race starts, you know what to do. When you start to speak you know your material. Get into the flow of the delivery and the nerves will go away. I think “You’ve got a job to do – go out and do it well”. That helps to focus on the mechanics of what I’m doing rather than getting over-awed by the occasion.
    What do you do?

  2. Many parallels to auditioning for film & television.
    Agree that knowing your material is vital. Without that, your nerves can degenerate exponentially.
    Breathing in through the nose (to get oxygen to the brain) is also key to centering oneself.
    In addition, a good full-body workout hours before the speech/ audition relaxes the body & the mind.

  3. Mitch – About 6 years ago I attended one of your blogging seminars for the CMA in Toronto. I was impressed with your “act” and I didn’t feel like I was part of an audience – I felt as though you were speaking directly to me. A few years ago I was offered a teaching position at a college and was quite nervous the days leading up to my first class. I did know the material very well, which helped. But what really helped me was to present as though I were presenting to a single person. It helped me to relax and helped me to engage with my students. I still get nervous from time to time before a class, but now its more of an excited kind of nervous and I look forward to each one.

  4. The one thing that has helped me is studying the ‘art of presenting’. Presenting isn’t a natural skill. It’s something you must develop and study. I’ve read two great books that have helped me: ‘The Art of the Pitch’ and ‘Give Your Speech, Change the World’. Both books I discovered through Mitch’s podcast.
    Check out those books!

  5. “Our mind (and body) react so adversely to public speaking, because it isn’t a natural and intuitive act for humans.”
    Do you have any research on that fact? I come from an oral based Native culture. Children are taught and made to stand up and speak to groups at a young age. By the time they are young adults they have already spoken to groups dozens of times.

  6. I think you’re absolutely right in that it’s about whether or not you know your content. I still get nervous to get in front of hundreds (or thousands) of people for the self-conscious reasons we discussed, but you’re right in that I could definitely get on stage and talk about the future of the communications industry for 45 minutes.
    Thanks, again, for joining us yesterday! I just watched the video of the actual webinar and it turned out really well!

  7. I present several times of the year to a range of audiences, some very intimidating (judicial audiences, senior regulators and the like). One thing I have learned is that I can harness the nerves into adrenaline for the talk. I am naturally pretty low-key, and come off as low energy, so that adrenaline helps to animate me, making my talks livelier.
    But as you say, it has taken a number of years to get there. The more I do, the better I get.
    Thank you for sharing your insight, Mitch–I appreciate hearing about the view from in front of an audience of 1000!

  8. Being taught an activity doesn’t mean it’s part of our natural. I’m not sure we need research to know that speaking in public is not something humans are intuitively wired or born to do. It’s a learned skill.

  9. Great article thanks Mitch. Having been studying public speaking for 10 years, joined speaking groups, done short courses, workshops, seminars you name it, I believe that there are too many workshops out there being run by out-of-work actors that focus too heavily on technique and don’t even go near content. Even in Toastmasters you tend to get slammed when you start talking about content first.
    The real world reality is that you have to get ‘what’ you are going to say sorted first, then then look at ‘how’ to say it. Even then all most people need is just to be shown how to be a slightly more confident version of themselves, not be overloaded with a whole lot of acting techniques.

  10. Mine run a bit more superficial, but still work for me:
    ~ fresh haircut so confident I look my best
    ~ comfortable outfit so not tugging or uncomfortable
    ~ practice pausing so I don’t talk to fast
    ~ limit of 2 quick stories per point so I am clear about information but don’t ramble
    ~ visualize how I want to feel and want audience to feel at end so I know if I feel “off” and can course-correct midway.
    Mitch, I’ve only read your work, I hope to SEE you sometime soon 🙂

  11. I have teaching presentation skills to advertising people for the past 15 years and that’s among the best couple of ‘tips’ I’ve seen.

  12. I have overcome my stage fright through constant participation in a class reading sessions. At first, my hands and knees were shaking very rapidly and my face turns red. But as the years past, I feel more confident reading something in front of a crowd.

  13. I was once someone who feared public speaking more than death. A mentor told me that nobody wants to see an awkward, nervous speaker stumble through a presentation, they want you to do well. After some practice and remembering this advice, I now get complimented nearly every time I speak. Now that i know how, it is such an advantage in business. Also remember that it’s usually the guy who doesn’t get nervous that makes the most inappropriate speech at a wedding. 🙂

  14. Mitch,
    Great advice and anyone who has spoken publicy can surely relate. I would recommend anyone who wants to improve their speaking skills, learn many great techniques, and practice in front of supportive audiences to join Toastmasters. It is a great organization that focuses on improving your communication, speaking and leadership skills and at a very reasonable price.

  15. Hi Mitch,
    I have a somewhat different take on this.
    I contend that people aren’t inherently afraid of speaking before a group. What causes the fear are beliefs that get triggered when we speak, such as Mistakes and failure are bad, if I make a mistake I’ll be rejected, I’m not good enough or capable, what makes me good enough is having people think well of me, etc.
    We have helped about 4,000 people totally eliminate their fear of speaking in public. In fact, we guarantee that people’s fear will be totally eliminated or they get a full refund, which we have given to only 8% of the people we work with.
    The University of Arizona did a study a few years ago and found that after eliminating 10-12 beliefs fear was reduced from a mean of 7 (on a scale from 1-10) to 1.5. http://www.undoityourself.com/research.html
    I don’t mean this to be a promotion for our work, only a different point of view to be considered. We have found that many behaviors and emotions that are considered to be human nature (such a a fear of failure and a concern with the opinions of others) are, in fact, the result of beliefs that can be permanently eliminated.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts daily. I enjoy your posts and podcasts.
    Regards, Morty
    Founder and president, Lefkoe Institute

  16. Hey, Mitch. I know this is old, but you linked back to it recently and I’m glad you did. The biggest speaking opportunity of my life (so far) is coming up in a couple of months, and I want to be sure to nail it. This post and your entry about giving a good presentation are of great help to me.
    I’m a bit jealous of those like you who SEEM to perform naturally. But it is somewhat encouraging to read that you still experience nerves. You’re human.
    Thank you, sir! Hope to meet you one day (maybe Social Media Marketing World?).

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