Two clients called me recently, both in a panic about panicking.
Joe and Stephanie are very different types of people, but they’d had similar experiences. Each had been giving a series of speeches — and getting great feedback — when suddenly, just before another talk, each of them was blindsided by what they described as panic.
Public Speaking Panic Used To Be Called “Stage Fright”
What used to be called stage fright can be a powerful and unsettling experience, particularly when it strikes unexpectedly.
Joe felt like he couldn’t breathe. Stephanie felt like she couldn’t think. Both of them had that awful sense of vertigo, where it seems like your next step might take you off an emotional cliff.
For Stephanie and Joe, stage fright didn’t lead to failure. Both pushed through it and were able to give their usual, wonderful talks. (More on how they did that, below.)
But each was left with a residual sense of… well, panic about their panic experience. Each wondered, What just happened? What does it mean? And, worst of all, what if it happens again?
Could Public Speaking Panic Happen to You?
No matter how conscientious, experienced or well-prepared you are — and no matter how eager you are to speak with a particular audience — anyone can have a bout of stage fright, or what I call a UME (unscheduled mental experience).
Why does this happen?
We don’t know — any more than we know what déjà vu really is, or how a winning athlete can suddenly hit a slump. Stress is often involved… or maybe it was something you ate for breakfast. You can’t know for sure, and it doesn’t really matter.
Because here’s the important thing about stage fright and other UME’s, like critical internal “voices“: They don’t mean anything, except that you’re human.
To Panic about Public Speaking Is Human. To Make Mistakes Is, Too!
With apologies to Alexander Pope, who wrote, “To err is human, to forgive, divine,” it’s also human to worry about erring, a/k/a making a mistake.
Isn’t that what stage fright is? The worry (felt more in our bodies than our minds) that we might (a) make an error, and (b) suffer for it?
So let’s dispense with the I might make a mistake thing: There’s no “might” about it. You will make a mistake. Maybe you’ll:
- Forget a word, a phrase, a point, a story.
- Talk too fast, or shuffle too much, or stand in a less than flattering way.
- Respond ungraciously to a question, or spill some water on your shirt.
There are seemingly endless potential mistakes, and you’re probably not going to get through a speech of any length without making at least one of them!
(I’ve made all of these… and recently!)
Fortunately, mistakes don’t matter either, because no one expects you to be perfect, or would like it if you were. The only way to be a “perfect” speaker is to be safe, boring, and meaningless.
You don’t want that, do you?
Yeah, Yeah… But What Do I Do if I Get Hit with Public Speaking Panic??
First, don’t panic about the fact that you’re panicking. Remember, what you’re having is a feeling. It’s a drag, but it doesn’t mean anything.
Now, try to reconnect with your most powerful “self.” Not the self of your birth certificate or bio, but the self that:
- Can handle life’s challenges; and
- Knows how to give a speech (and has prepared to give this one well).
How You Connect with Your Public Speaking Power Depends on Whether You’re an Introvert or an Extravert
Introverts, like my client Joe, find security and strength within themselves. So when Joe felt the cold fingers of panic, he wisely stepped out of the room and found a place to be alone. He got in touch with his breathing, and took a quiet moment to reflect on what he was doing, and how he would do it well.
Stephanie, by contrast, is an extrovert. When panic struck, she dispelled it by talking to the people who were at her event. Social energy feeds extroverts, and helps them connect with their personal strengths; mingling also reminded Stephanie that this audience was on her side, and looking forward to her talk.
If Public Speaking Panic Strikes, Keep It Simple
The last thing you want to do, if stage fright strikes, is to treat it like a disaster. It’s a normal, human, and sometimes unavoidable reaction that will pass quickly if you don’t… panic! So,
Go be alone, or wade into the crowd — and then come back and give your speech.
And if you’d like help to work on your speech, or your strategy for dealing with panic, contact me and we’ll set up a time to talk.