Stage fright is a truly terrible feeling. Many people confront it, but usually they manifest their experience in different ways. Some people cry, some talk louder, some simply feel a vague sense of dread as they move through the speech. What I’ve noticed in talking to people about it over the years is that the experience of it changes dramatically from person to person, but it is always quite miserable if you feel it.
I have an awful fear of speaking on stage. As a teacher, I never feel nervous speaking to a roomful of high school students, but once a year in May I am asked to speak in front of a large audience on a stage with a microphone. The speech itself is something I’m honored to give, but the fear I feel starts around January and becomes nearly debilitating by the end of April. It is only a three-minute speech but my fear of it consumes months of my life.
People are always very supportive and try to be compassionate but usually the advice I get doesn’t help all that much. If you mention you have this fear you will get a lot of guidance, but often I’m not sure if the people who give it really understand the parts of it that make it so terrifying. It is an irrational feeling and most rational suggestions fail to address it in a way that is practical. You get advice like “Try to imagine them all naked”. If everyone in the audience were naked I’m sure I’d be even more terrified! How could the thought of hundreds of naked humans staring at you be even remotely comforting? Other people ask you “What’s the worst that can happen?” They have no idea of the circus that your brain becomes for three minutes. The worst that can happen is that you’ll be on stage giving the speech. People simply can’t comprehend why a relatively simple act like this can cause such suffering. I don’t really understand it myself.
The following is an attempt to describe the experience in real time. Some of this will sound silly, but every single thought written down has gone through my mind on stage. The goal of this piece is to create a running record of what stage fright actually feels like for me.
Alright, here we go. Need another sip of water. If you act confident, the fear won’t come. Okay, time to stand up. They just called me. Fix my jacket. Three buttons…how many should I button? I need to keep it buttoned cause my tie is too short. I look like Oliver Hardy. Someone once told me leave the bottom unbuttoned. Okay. Here we go. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Just read. You should make some arm gestures. Just hold the podium. Don’t fall. Hands sweating. The podium is see through. Are the spots around my hand fogging up? Do they see me sweating? Act confident. Here it comes. Here it comes. I should have left them all unbuttoned. I should have acted more confident. Now IT is HERE.
Hot. What if I pass out? Falling, hitting my head. Would someone catch me? I’m too big. Where am I? Did I just miss a line…no, no, I’m okay….page one is over. Don’t look up. They are all looking at you. They are all looking at you. Is my fly zipped? Don’t look up. Fast. Dizzy when I look up. Falling, hitting my head. IT IS HERE.
Does what I’m saying make any sense? Do they hear me? I didn’t practice enough. I practiced wrong. Fast. I practiced too much. What if I forget how to read? Sweating. Pain in the top of my head. Antler pain. I feel like antlers are going to sprout out of the top of my head. Stay focused. Where am I? I am reading, but I don’t know how. There is another me reading. I don’t even know what the other me is saying. Why are they laughing? Did I say something funny? Did I do something embarrassing? I didn’t write that to be funny…what’s happening???
FOCUS!!!! Antlers. Sharp, sharp pain in the top of my head. Halfway done. Sweating. What if I can’t breathe? Slow down your breathing. What if I can’t? I don’t control my breathing. Long way to go in this speech. Lots of words left. What if I start saying weird things? What if I start shouting random nonsense? NO CONTROL. What if I burp? What if I start cursing? What if I lose control of my body? Sharp pain in my head. Antlers are growing inside. Will they pop out?
One page left. Downhill, downhill, breathe, another minute…..breathe. If I can just get one more page. What am I talking about? Where am I? DON’T LOOK UP!!!! THEY are watching you….breathe….breathe….you are going to fast…..no one understands….breathe….one paragraph now…..look up once…try it…..try it….dizzy….FOCUS….DON’T LOOK UP…..clapping…no more words….handshake….get to the chair….don’t fall….don’t pass out…get to the chair…..sit down…..breathe….