Since it’s Halloween, let’s consider a frightful topic. Experienced trial lawyers usually get past their stage fright early on, and even come to relish the idea of standing in front of a jury, or most any audience. But younger attorneys, law students, or those who simply haven’t had that many live-speech opportunities yet, may still be coping with it. And even for those who are trial tested, a new or difficult situation might bring the butterflies back.
For those in the grip of stage fright, the internal monologue can look like this:
How am I doing? Maybe it’s okay, maybe I’ll be fine… Oh no, I just said “Um.” And now I’ve said it again. Can I keep this up for another 60 minutes? I’m dying up here… Do I remember my notes for the next section? What I just said made no sense at all! Why am I pacing? And what on earth am I doing with my hands?
That’s the “internal critic,” and whatever content you are sharing, it is competing with that in order to get to the audience. There are several ways of coping: greater practice and familiarity, stress-reduction techniques, but also, and perhaps most important, mindset. In this post, I’m going to address that last category of mindset, making the argument that reframing the situation away from yourself and toward your audience helps. It’s a good perspective, not just for stage fright, but for communication generally.
What’s Wrong With the Common Advice?
Some of the common advice that speakers receive on dealing with stage fright isn’t always that helpful. Some will say, ‘Be confident.’ Confidence, however, is an effect that stems from a large number of factors. It isn’t a button that can be pushed at will. Others might refine that to, ‘Act confidently,’ but if the target could do that, they’d be a great actor – something that people with serious stage fright generally aren’t. If they could simply summon or affect confidence, then they wouldn’t be in this situation. Alternately, your supporters might try to reason with you toward this goal: You’ve prepared, you have a great topic, you know your stuff! Still, that can seem a little hollow. You’ve still got a bad case of the nerves and it sets off a self-reinforcing cycle; The more nervous you are, the worse you think you’ll do; and the worse you think you’ll do, the more nervous you are.
Then, there’s the advice to imagine the audience in their underwear. I suppose it depends on the audience. But, ultimately, I don’t see that doing much for the speaker’s nerves, or their focus.
What’s the Better Frame?
So here is a better idea: depersonalize it. In your own thinking, your own messages to yourself, make it about your audience and not about yourself. In other words, focus on what your audience is getting and less about how you feel, or even what they think of you. The reality is that nervous communicators focus on themselves, and the more that internal voice picks apart every aspect of presentation, the more nervous they’ll be. So the solution is to reframe it. It’s about your purpose, it’s not about you. The less it is about you, and the less you feel like you are ‘performing,’ the better you’ll feel.
How Do You Apply that Frame?
The first step is to silence that internal critic or that voice that is obsessed with your own performance and how you feel. Instead, focus on content. I have found that a good way to keep that content focus is to record your notes and then listen to the recording as you review your content. It is a good way of practicing that doesn’t require you to be on your feet and, potentially, feeling nervous. Later, when you are immersed in your content, go for that on-your-feet practice.
Then, as you present, keep your focus on the audience, both literally and conceptually. Think about what they are getting and what they might find useful. As you speak, your goal and focus isn’t to get through the next 60 minutes. The focus isn’t even to ‘cover’ the topic. The focus is to leave the audience with a tangible outcome: at least one takeaway that they’ll understand and use.
If you apply that reframing, you might notice that this is good advice not just for dealing with stage fright, but for communication generally. An audience-centered rather than self-centered perspective provides a good way to address a judge, a jury, or a CLE audience.