That clammy horrible fear. The tightness in your chest. The overwhelming desire to run. It might have hit you at 5 years old, waiting offstage before your big debut in the school nativity scene. It might have hit you at the school talent show when you realised that juggling might not be quite so cool after all. It might even hit you next week, just before a big presentation or a wedding speech.
Americans recently rated stage fright as being scarier than death. For those who’ve experienced it, you’ll understand why. But here at VoiceHacker, we’ve got a few tips to help you conquer your stage fright that works wonders for our clients. So here goes:
1. Practice The famous old adage runs: practice makes perfect.
But why does practice make perfect? Why do you get better at things over time?
Let’s focus on how your brain learns new tasks. In every action, there are parts that are handled by your conscious mind and parts that are handled by your unconscious mind. For instance, in taking a golf swing: your conscious mind is focused on how to hold the club, and considering how to direct the ball to where you want it to go. But your unconscious mind is doing far more: using the muscles in your legs to keep you upright, processing visual images from your optic nerve into vision, as well as happily palpating the small intestine. If we’re comparing workloads, the unconscious mind is doing by far the most work.
When stage fright hits, it comes in the form of a fear of failure – that somehow you will screw up everything. But often, this bigger fear takes root in smaller, specific fears: ‘What if I muck up my walk on?’ ‘What if I can’t get the microphone back in its stand?’ ‘What if I stumble over my words?’. You panic about every little thing.
And because you’re panicking, you begin to overthink. You take processes which were previously automatic and muck them up by making them too conscious. You stumble over the amp cable when you walk onstage. You spend a whole minute trying to slot the mic back in. And what comes out of your mouth is mumbled nonsense. This all happens because your conscious mind is far less powerful than your unconscious mind at controlling this stuff. Returning to the golf shot: there is no better way to send the ball spinning into the lake than to overthink the swing.
So how do we make sure that things stay in the control of our unconscious mind? Practice everything. Get to the stage early and practice the walk on. Practice taking the mic out of its stand. Practice your most-used phrases there and then. Practice everything so many times that the processes become unconscious – that you can do them without thinking. Then come the night, don’t overthink – rely on your unconscious mind to guide you through. Practice makes things automatic.
2. Reframe Your Fear
What is stage fright? Most people would say ‘I get stage fright’ in the same way that they say ‘I am from Chesterfield’ – it is a defining part of them which they feel is immovable and permanent. But fear is not a personality trait. It’s just a hormonal reaction to an environment which you perceive to be threatening. Put it this way – it’s not that you have stage fright, it’s just your body which is responding to the environment.
When I was dealing with fear before going on stage, this was the single best piece of advice I ever received: ‘You’re not nervous: you’re energised.’ Think about the symptoms of stage fright – the increased heart rate, the sharpened perception, the muscles energised and jumpy – and you see that these could just as easily mean that you’re energised instead of nervous. Stage fright is just your mind’s interpretation of the heightened excitement in your body.
So that fear that you’re feeling is just your body doing its thing – and you can choose whether you interpret it as nervousness or just feeling pumped. Keeping this distance between your mind and your body is one of the best ways you can reframe your fear – but it takes practice. Get yourself in high-pressure situations and keep reminding yourself: the feeling of being energised is perfectly natural, but it doesn’t have to overwhelm you.
3. False Vocal Folds
Stage fright can create a severe bodily reaction, and the tips above show that if we change our approach, we can rise above our body to perform well. But there is one particular part of the stage fright reaction that we need to counteract.
The body’s fear reaction adds in a huge shock of tension to the vocal folds, especially to the false vocal folds (known medically as the vestibular folds). The FVF’s (false vocal folds) are two sheets of thick muscle that sit on top of the true vocal folds. They don’t help to produce sound – that’s the true vocal folds’ job – but they help to seal off the windpipe when swallowing.
However, the FVF’s get a bit jumpy when stage fright kicks in – they pull together a little closer over the true vocal folds, pinching off the available space. Recognise the feeling of your throat tightening up? That’s the feeling of the FVF’s constricting. When it comes to singing or speaking, this often results in a pinched, quiet sound, as you can hear below.