Do Y’all Ever Get Nervous On Stage? The Merlin Works Newsletter

My students often ask me how to overcome stage fright. I do a lot of training with sales people, health professionals, software engineers, state agencies and more. In almost every industry, you’ll find the fear of public speaking. It could be pitching your product one-on-one to a big client, presenting to the executive team on your work, an interview on local TV news, or making a toast at your daughter’s wedding. Almost all of us get the jitters talking in front of other people–even me! 

I still get a little nervous before going on stage for an improv show after *ahem* almost 30 years. If it’s a big gig or a show with someone I want to impress, I get more than just a little nervous. But I’m also a theater weirdo and so much of my training and preparation automatically comes online as I step through the curtain. When I hit center stage, I naturally stand up straighter, health issues that I’m having seem to fade away (thank you Doctor Stage Lights), my mood elevates, my senses heighten and, once I’ve gotten going, most of that nervousness fades away. 

Throughout my *cough* three decades of performance and public speaking I’ve accumulated some knowledge and wisdom on the subject. So what do you do when your heart is racing, palms are sweaty, and your stomach is full of butterflies? You won’t be shocked at all when I tell you the first step is to “Yes And” your nervousness. Instead of fighting it and trying to calm down, try what Harvard Business School psychologist Alison Wood Brooks calls “reappraising anxiety as excitement.”  Both people who have low anxiety and high anxiety have the same stage fright symptoms (although to be fair the high anxiety people have more). But people without stage fright just interpret these symptoms differently. They think, “This is my body getting ready to do something big! I’m getting excited! Let’s go!” In fact, when I’m not feeling that heart pounding backstage I often jump around a little bit, shake my hands and feet and try to amp up my body to I get the energy I need to do a good show. 

So when your mouth gets dry and your palms get sweaty just think: I am like Eminem in 8 Mile. “This is my body giving me the energy and focus I need to do a great job.” Brooks writes, “Compared to those who attempt to calm down, individuals who reappraise their anxious arousal as excitement feel more excited and perform better.” 

For an extra bonus when you have that shortness of breath and quivering voice, know what my friend Cynthia Oelkers at Conclaro taught me:  that for people with stage fright, your symptoms typically peak one minute into your presentation and then start to dissipate. Knowing this and welcoming it is a powerful tool. So when you get onstage and your body is telling you “run!” know that those signals are coming right on time just as expected, they will peak in a minute and start to fade away. It’s not a sign that you shouldn’t be up there, it’s a sign that you’re about to feel a whole lot better. 

When you are having those backstage nerves, there are a couple more things you can do. If you are alone, you can give yourself a pep talk in the third person.  Jonah Berger, Author of Magic Words suggests this evidence-based technique. Instead of talking to yourself starting with “I” like “I’m too nervous” “I’m not good at public speaking.” “I can’t do this.” Tap into your inner coach and use “You” statements and even use your first name. Talk to yourself like a friend would:  “You can do this.” “You’ve given speeches before and they went well.” “Shana, you got this.” Not only is this encouraging, it also lets you know that there is a part of you outside the nervousness that is calm and confident in that moment. It gives you some space and detachment. And you can tap into that energy and agency in your performance. When people used this observer voice to coach themselves before anxiety producing activities in research studies, they ended up being less anxious and performing better. 

If you are with other people, then I’ll share with you a different technique. It’s something that happens in improv theaters around the world when improvisers are about to start a show.  We can hear the audience chattering in the house. We can see the stage lights peeking behind the curtain. We can hear the house music playing. Nerves are at their peak. We are about to go onstage and we have no idea what we are going to do or say. We have no idea how the audience will react. Improvisers have a secret tradition they do in these nerve-wracking-huddled-up-moments-in-the-dark. We turn to each other, make eye contact, place our hand on the other person’s shoulder and say, “I’ve got your back.” Everyone does this to everyone else in the group. “Got your back,” We whisper. “Got your back.” 

What “Got your back” means to me is, I’m not going to let you look like a fool alone on stage.  I will do my best to make you look good. I will try to respond to your ideas as if you are a genius and will make you a genius. If you do something really dumb, I am going to try to save you. And if I can’t save you, I’m going to join you and we will be idiots together.  This is powerful because it lets me know I should play big, take risks, make big choices and I will be supported. Because everyone here on stage has my back. 

I had been enacting this ritual for decades before I saw my friend Shannan Scarsaletta from Improvision tell it as a story to a corporate audience. I realized it was a peek behind the improv theater’s curtain that civilians were eager to see. It’s also a tool they can use in solidifying the company culture they wanted. The group took some time to share stories of when people in the organization had their back. Maybe it was covering someone during maternity leave. Maybe it was picking up a presentation when someone stuck their foot in their mouth. Maybe it was a mentor who had helped them develop as a leader. The stories were powerful and affirming. 

Another tool I just learned from Jeff Harry at the Applied Improv Network Conference in Vancouver in a session called Embracing Your Fears: We, Not Me. After spending some time identifying and sharing our fears, he had us take out a pen and paper and write a list of people who have your back. It could be family, friends, colleagues, or people you don’t even know. I wrote down my partner, my family, my friends, and my troupe mates. Then he had us add to that list our ancestors. Those you came before us and we would look to for guidance. I wrote down my parents, my teachers, my mentors, those who inspire me. Then he had us add our descendants, the people we have influenced. I wrote down my students, my Merlin Works team, my training clients. And after a few minutes I had a list filling the whole page of people who had my back. Jeff was inspired by Maya Angelou (one of my heroes) who was asked how is she so confident when she gets up in front of people. She says when she goes to teach a class or direct a movie or talk on television, she brings everyone onstage who has ever been kind to her, everyone who has been “a rainbow in her cloud.”

Then Jeff had us do a visualization where we stood up, closed our eyes, and imagined all those people on that paper standing beside us and behind us. As if we were flanked with an army of supporters. Then we opened our eyes and experienced what it was like to walk across the room and greet someone with that energy behind us. It was powerful. 

Dr. Angelou says you prepare yourself and bring all those rainbows with you,” so you can be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.” Many of you reading this were in my heart during that exercise and I hope I can be that for many people I have taught and touched. 

These are not ways to feel no fear when you get onstage. These are ways to reframe the experience so that you can feel your fear, but also feel the support from your body, from your mind, and from your community. hopefully making those spotlight moments a little less daunting. 

About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.

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