John Lahr has a great article on stagefright in the August 28th New Yorker that made me think about how much I hate--and love--public speaking. Lahr writes:
All the central traumas of childhood--being alone, abandoned, unsupported, emotionally abused--are revived for an actor when he appears before the paying customers, who have the power to either starve him of affection or reward him with approval... When things are going well, the stage and the house merge and a sort of imaginative union is achieved... "There is brilliant intellectual clarity, a sense of boundless, inexhaustible energy as the chambers of the brain open up," [Ian] Holm says of a successful performance... When the actor cannot make contact and the audience withholds its affection, however, the experience brings back a primal anxiety.
That aptly describes the attraction and repulsion that any public speaking opportunity holds for me. But Lahr goes on to explain that the terrors of stagefright can be useful, even salutary. He quotes the pianist Charles Rosen:
"Stagefright is not merely symbolically but functionally necessary, like the dread of a candidate before an examination or a job interview, both designed essentially as tests of courage," Rosen writes. "Stagefright...is a grace that is sufficient in the old Jesuit sense--that is, insufficient by itself, but a necessary condition for success."
Lahr closes with a discussion with the acting coach Susan Batson:
"If you're a people pleaser"--worried about whether the audience is going to like you--"you're bound to have stagefright," she told me. "If you have an issue of not feeling like you're good enough, you're bound to have stagefright. The people who survive it are the ones who can take control of the situation and override it."
Rather than think of performers with stagefright as aberrant or lacking in determination, Batson actually takes the opposite view:
"I'm always terrified of the person who doesn't have [stagefright], because it means that the commitment is not fully there."
Lahr's article makes me think that the problem isn't really stagefright itself--it's my resistance to stagefright. I feel anxiety and fear; I see those feelings as evidence of my inadequacy as a speaker or as harbingers of failure; and I become consumed with the futile struggle to stamp them out.
But if, instead, I see those feelings as evidence of my desire to do well and to win over the audience, and as entirely natural reactions to the situation, I can simply accept that I'm anxious and fearful--as I should be--and harness that energy rather than try to fight it.
I've linked before to R. Todd Stephens' public speaking tips, and I still recommend them. (I'm linking to the Internet Archive's version of this page, as it's no longer available on Todd's site.) But in addition to those tactical ways to increase my comfort level before an audience, I'm going to adopt the strategy of simply accepting my stagefright, breathing it in, and moving on. We'll see how it goes.
UPDATE: Marnie Webb has a detailed description of the process she's developed to deal with stagefright when speaking. Two things I particularly love:
- By telling her audience at the outset that she's prone to fast talking because of nervousness, she "invites everyone into the problem" and allows them to be part of the solution. We could apply the same strategy to any issue that we struggle with as speakers--inviting our audience into the problem (i.e. recognizing and embracing it, rather than trying to hide it) completely transforms the dynamic from "me vs. them" to "us vs. the problem." Big difference.
- She drafts a detailed text to accompany each slide and then deletes it, leaving just "a screen shot or a word or a phrase." The text goes into the notes section, so the audience will have a useful handout after the talk, but during the talk their attention will be focused on what Marnie's actually saying, not on her slides. The slides will complement and support her words, rather than substitute for them. And Marnie will be engaging the audience by looking at them, rather than looking over her shoulder in order to read her slides. This is consistent with Seth Godin's excellent PowerPoint guidelines, but it also forces Marnie to practice her presentation repeatedly, which is probably the best way to deal with stagefright, but also one of the most easily ignored.