Picture of a boardroom table with lots of people around it and a person presenting on a whiteboard

Stage Fright!

It started as an innocuous message on a popular networking Slack that I belong to, “does anyone know who can give a talk on Public Speaking”.

I figure, why the heck not… I’ve done that a few times, surely I have a few tips and tricks.

It turned out to be for the budding “Women in Technology” group within Spark. They have an internal monthly meetup where they invite guest speakers to talk about things that might affect women and other minority genders working in a giant tech company.

I started by showing the Instagram reel of Madeleine Chalk. She is an amazing actor and singer who does these videos entitled “These lyrics but…”. The premise is, to read out the lyrics to a popular song, but in a different style.

The one I picked to showcase was the song Welcome to the Black Parade by My Chemical Romance but in the style of a Ted Talk.

The reel is funny, and yet also shows you that, the content of your talk is not necessarily the be-all and end-all of everything.

A pie chart that has three segments. The first segment, in dark blue has a callout entitled "non-verbal communication, 55%", the secon segment, in pink, has a callout entitled "Content, 7%" and the last segment, in dark pink, has a callout entitled "voice, 38%"
The “Mehrabian Myth”

In fact, this has been so oft-repeated, that it has become a “golden rule” of human communication. First posited by Dr Albert Mehrabian in 1967, it is the idea that non-verbal communication (i.e. body language) is 55% of the communication and that tone of voice is 38% – which means that content is only worth 7%!

This Mehrabian Myth has been debunked by Dr Mehrabian himself. He claims that the initial studies are only applicable if the speaker is communicating feelings and attitudes. Your audience will see through your presentation if it is all show and no content.

However, I wanted to start with this. When helping people who are nervous or worried about public speaking, it is important to address the greatest fears first.

The women and people of minority genders in this group know their content. They are all professional, smart people who are good at their jobs. It’s the other bit they are worried about.

So, what is stage fright, or performance anxiety?

According to WebMD (I know, not the best bastion of knowledge, but hey, it’s a good quick summary)

  • Sweaty or cold hands
  • Racing pulse and rapid breathing
  • Dry mouth and tight throat
  • Trembling hands, knees, lips and voice
  • Nausea and/or an uneasy feeling in your stomach
  • Vision changes (tunnel vision, blurry etc)

So, how do you avoid all of this? I gave the group four quick tips.

Four quick tips

Screenshot of a slide - it has a dartboard image to the left and the right says "Aim! Know what you are trying to achieve"
Aim! Know what you are trying to achieve

Don’t think about your anxiety or nerves, If your thoughts are fragmented, you don’t feel centred. Instead, pick a clear intention, what is your goal for this talk? What do you want to achieve?

When creating your aim, don’t use negative words, instead of “don’t trip” use “walk confidently”

Screenshot of a slide - the image to the right is of a wooden signpost. The words say "Process prompt - How are you trying to achieve it?"
Process Prompt – How are you trying to achieve it?

Once you have your intention, create your process prompt. A process prompt is how you want to achieve your aim.

For example, if you are doing an interview or a podcast – your process prompt could be “smile and ask great questions”. If you are giving a presentation, it could be “keep it positive and engaging”.

How do you want to achieve your goal? Is it the tempo you want to concentrate on? What is the feeling you want to achieve in your audience? Or in yourself?

Think about your body language. Are you pacing, rubbing your arms, grabbing at your hands? Do you have closed-off body language, are you deliberately making yourself small?

Do you need a power pose?

Actress Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman holding her armoured arms in a cross in front of her chest
The ultimate power pose
Screenshot of a slide, there is a camera lens to the right being held by a hand. The words say "Look in the distance, throw that nervous energy away"
Look in the distance, throw that nervous energy away

I saw this tip online somewhere a while ago, and I really loved it. The idea is that you will have nervous energy, and pretending you do not is lying to yourself. So instead of pretending you don’t have nervous energy, pick a far-off, unimportant point in the back of the room, and throw your nervous, anxious energy there – don’t try to ignore that you have it, just throw it away!

If you can’t do this (maybe you’re doing the whole thing in your bedroom on Zoom!), use a grounding prop – pick an object to throw your nervous energy into, a coffee cup sitting right in front of you is often handy.

Screenshot of a slide with an image of a tattooed woman with her arms outspread, looking over a lake. The words say "Breathe, mindfully and with purpose"
Breathe, mindfully and with purpose

When we’re nervous, we take shorter and shallower breaths, or even hold our breath! This makes us light-headed and dizzy.

Learn to breathe! It sounds ridiculous to say, but learning to breathe deliberately, or mindfully can help alleviate all this.

You can be stressed and anxious because it is the first time you are performing under these particular circumstances. One way to prevent this from happening is to practice in conditions that are as close to the actual performance conditions as possible.

  • wear the outfit you plan to wear
  • practice standing or sitting as you mean to on the day
  • Use the materials you will be using
  • try to mimic the setup you will be in
  • practice your breathing in the same spots you will take a breath.

Practising like this ahead of time allows you to become comfortable with most aspects of your performance so they feel familiar when you give your presentation.

Blonde woman facing away wearing a aeroback crop work out top. Her shoulder muscles are clearly pronounced. The words say "Release muscle tension, find your center"
Release muscle tension, find your center

Inhale and with each breath physically consciously relax each part of your body

First, take a few deep breaths and shake out your body.

Now we will do one breath per area of your body. Close your eyes and think of relaxing each of these areas.

Deep breath. Relax your face and all the muscles around your eyes.

Deep breath. Relax your jaw and neck.

Deep breath. Loosen your shoulders and relax your chest.

Deep breath. Relax your arms and hands make sure they are completely loose.

Deep breath. Relax your stomach and ab muscles.

Deep breath. Relax your glutes and thighs.

Deep breath. Relax your shins and lower legs.

Deep breath. Wiggle your toes and completely relax your feet.

Thinking about our physical center also can help ground us. Think about the spot two inches below your navel and the spot two inches below the beginning of your belly.

If the tips aren’t quite enough, there are some games that you can play which might help you hone the skills you need to feel more confident.

public speaking games

Picture of pink dots on a black background. There is a heading that says "Connect the dots" and the bullet points underneath say 1. Prepare a collection of nouns – at least 50 – 100
2. Put the words into a box
3. Pick two out and immediately begin telling a story that starts at one word and ends at the other
Connect the dots – a game of transitions

This game is about transitions. We learn how to link two concepts that are seemingly completely separate. From a large collection of nouns, randomly select two. Tell a story or narrative that starts at the first word and ends with the second.

For example, if your words were water bottle and fish, you could tell a tale of how certain traces of metals can leak out of plastic water bottles and you might not want to fill your fish tank up using disposable water bottles, otherwise you’d kill your fish!

photo of a woman in yellow shirt with black polka dots holding two star shaped straws over her eyes.

The words say "Speak Nonsense" and the bullets underneath say Get Any random content
Find a paragraph online in a language you don’t understand
Read out lorem ipsum
Find lyrics to a song (like Madeleine)
Practice saying it aloud
Pay attention to your tone, inflections and how you use your voice
Speak Nonsense – learn how to say something, no matter what it is

This game is very similar to what Madeleine Chalk does on Instagram. You’re paying attention to the tone and inflections instead of what you are saying. Practise even making something that isn’t dramatic sound dramatic, or something that isn’t funny sound funny. It’s a vibe.

Picture of a wooden spoon, a wooden bowl and two eggs. The heading says "Sell Something" The text underneath says 
Or be enthusiastic about something mundane
Pick something, like this regular wooden spoon and be super enthusiastic, use your voice, emphasis and body language to make it seem like the most exciting thing ever!
Sell something… anything!

This is the classic salesperson job interview one. Sell something that is completely mundane. can you feign enthusiasm when it is something that isn’t exciting at all?

Thanks!

I’d like to thank the Women in Tech group at Spark for inviting me along, and also give a shoutout to my co-presenter, Erica Yi, who talked about the amazing Breakfast Club she founded at Ingram Micro. She takes less confident people, especially people who have english as their second (or even third) language, and over a series of workshops increases their confidence. Awesome!