The Stage is the New Jungle

How to confront performance anxiety and gain control over your stage fright.

The stage is a monster. The lights are bright. The eyes are many. The fear is palpable. Escape? Possible. But only through abject humiliation.

Go on. Try not to puke. I dare you.

And being onstage is only the culmination of your anxiety. For days, it builds. Self-doubt takes over your world. Your family is forced to deal with a person they do not know. All other work and responsibilities suffer. Anxiety has ‘jacked your ability to interact with the world.

On presentation eve, sleep is elusive. The rising terror thrives in the dark and the rising sun brings little cause for hope. The commute to the venue, whether across town, country or world, is a blur of nerves and dread. Of course, not a single personal problem or work distraction has taken time off in deference to your big presentation. And, as if any one of these demons were not singularly enough, you finally reach the podium only to be greeted by the mother of all panic attacks.

If anyone suggests you break a leg, you know exactly whose leg is going to get fucking broken.

* * *

Stage fright. It’s as real as rain and far more predictable. It affects the introverted and extroverted alike. It’s the one psychological affliction more dreaded than death itself.[1] And yet taking the stage is the best way to get your message heard and your skills showcased. You can succeed without giving presentations, but it’s going to take a lot longer and the number of paths to the top are far fewer.

So, how do you banish this angst and just get on with it? How do you create a calm, quiet mind so you can ascend the stage with confidence, remember everything you need to say and deliver it exactly how you intend?

They don’t call it a green room for nothing.

There’s a simple answer to that. You don’t.

You see you aren’t the only one who gets stage fright. We all do. It’s a natural evolved response each of us has inherited from our ancestors. Stage fright is a product of our subconscious mind — a collection of primordial instincts and autonomic functions that have evolved over the past 250 million years. You can’t just switch off a response that has a such a huge evolutionary head start over the rest of your brain.

So if you want to do something about stage fright, you have to accept that you can’t cure it. Your response to be scared witless is programmed into your subconscious. It is normal. However, what can’t be beaten can be hacked and that it exactly the approach we are going to take. You are about to learn how to hack your subconscious! That’s right, we’re going to start by taking a peek into this most ancient part of our brain to see what the possibilities are.

The subconscious is programmed to perceive danger and trigger a response. It is the subconscious that warned our ancestors about the danger of those rustling leaves in the jungle. Those without this reflex were removed from the gene pool long ago. Whatever was rustling those leaves ate them. So you should feel some gratitude to your subconscious. It kept our ancestors alive during some very dangerous times.

This is what the subconscious does. It is constantly vigilant to the threat of danger. The jungle may now be tame, but 250 million years of instinct can hardly be suppressed. Our subconscious is still on the lookout for danger and has identified the stage as the new jungle.

And for good reason, the stage is a dangerous place. A poor performance can make you look bad. It can lower your status among your co-workers, threaten your career and lessen your ability to provide for your family. Your subconscious is right to warn you to flee. The stage will eat you.

So, let’s be realistic. Stage fright is going nowhere. The idea that some deep breathing technique or Zen-ass mind trick will help is false hope. There is no way to create an exception condition for our subconscious.

The choices are few, but the winner is clear.

The panic will come.

It will have its say.

You can’t stop it.

And yet at some point all of us must manage to ascend one of those fearful stages.

Fortunately, there is a silver lining. The very nerves that are making you feel sick are doing what nature designed them to do: they are heightening your senses. They are making you hyper-aware. They are increasing your oxygen intake, amping your energy levels and helping you reach elevated mental alertness.

They are helping you survive by lighting up every aspect of your mental cognition.

Those nerves are also making you seem like a real, actual person that the audience can relate to. You are not some wooden politician who has memorized her speech or, more likely, read it from a teleprompter. These nerves will prevent you from being a soulless automaton giving a perfect speech delivered to an audience too busy staring at their phones to notice. That’s right Hillary Clinton, I am talking to you.

So you’re nervous. Congratulations on being human. Your evolved instinct to run from whatever is rustling the bushes served your ancestors well. But it is a terrible response to fear of the stage. The flight response will cause you to avoid dealing with the stress by either steering clear of stages (and having your career suffer for it) or avoiding dealing with them until the last possible minute. When you’ve delayed the flight response until the very moment you ascend the stage, disaster is going to strike.

Now let’s get down to what you can do about it. Here’s the rub: your subconscious is capable of only two responses: fight or flight. It doesn’t have a chill mode. So, since the flight response is a singularly terrible outcome, your only real choice is to reprogram your response for the fight response. Do this and you’ve just hacked your own brain.

That’s right, we’re going to retrain your brain so that instead of generating a flight response, it will generate a fight response. Instead of trying to tame or suppress your subconscious response, a fool’s errand if there ever was one, you are going to change it to another response it is already programmed to deliver.

Now, and this is important, we need to start this retraining days before your scheduled talk. 250 million years of evolution can’t be turned like a sports car. But if every time the fright surfaces, you go on the offensive, your assault can eventually wear it down. The idea is that by the time you get to the stage, you’ve successfully blunted the flight response and tuned your mind and body to use all that alertness and energy to fight, which is a much more useful response.

Eventually, the flight response will change to a fight response and all those nerves working against you are going to be your ally. So, let’s get to it. We’ll start the fight when it should start, days before your scheduled speaking event, and then follow you all the way to that very first step you take onto the stage.

And away we go …

The days before your presentation
 Goal: Convince your subconscious that the fight is winnable.
 Outcome: Confidence that you’ll know what to say when you ascend the stage.
 Method: Practice confronting your nerves.

It’s important to deal with your stage fright in advance of your talk. If you wait until the day-of-show, there will be little you can do about it. Your subconscious isn’t going to turn that quickly. Give yourself time to negotiate with your subconscious and, over time, even use it against itself. But this requires some work, which is why you need an early start.

You subconscious does not want you to think about your talk. It is going to urge you to avoid it. You cannot allow that to happen. Each time the nerves and angst start, it is your subconscious putting you in flight mode. Instead of complying, use this time of anxiousness as an opportunity to retrain your subconscious from flight mode to fight mode.

There is only one time the audience is guaranteed to be listening. Don’t squander it.

The message you need to your subconscious to hear is: I got this. When it hears that enough, it will begin the transformation. So, whenever you get the flight order from your subconscious, acknowledge it and then fight back.

How to fight back? Easy, by reciting your talk. Begin with just the opening few lines so you can quickly show your nerves just how prepared you are. The idea is to demonstrate to your subconscious that flight isn’t necessary.

For example:

In the days leading up to my 2014 talk at Digital Life Design on the big data revolution, my flight response would surface. Instead of giving into it, I gave it my talk: “Data is the new oil.” I repeated that tagline so often it became instantly available, like it was part of my tongue. Every time my nerves would surface, I wielded it as a weapon against my flight response.

It began to work. I had an instant response to my anxiety. It could surface all it wanted, I knew exactly what to do when it did. Uttering that line gave me confidence. Eventually, it led to the next line. “Big data, little data, structured data and unstructured data.” Then once that was down, I added the third. “Data is literally the new oil and like oil it will be responsible for the largest transfer of wealth from one place to another since the industrial revolution.” Bam. A compelling opening monologue that even my subconscious had to admit just might work.

As the days went by, my nerves didn’t actually get any better, I just got a lot better at fighting them. My reaction was quicker and my subconscious was beginning to get the message: hey maybe fighting will work! By the time I took the stage, my opening monologue was engrained in my brain and my subconscious was ready to give it a try.

Sometimes repeating my lines didn’t work. Sometimes the anxiety was that much harder to ignore. So, I doubled down. Instead of just reciting my lines, I used these times of increased nerves to edit them. I now do this regularly. I try out various alternations and iterations for my opening. Editing my lines, as opposed to just reciting them, is even more distraction from my anxiety. Plus, the changes often make my opening monologue even better.

This has become my process. My anxiety comes, I fight back. Rinse. Repeat. I simultaneously get used to beating my nerves and my opening gets better and better. I now do this for every talk I give.

In the days leading up to my 2015 talk at CES on the internet of things, my flight response would surface. Instead of giving into it, I gave it my talk: “I just put my hot tub on the internet of things and boy is it lonely!” By the time I took the stage, that line was engrained in my brain and I was on autopilot. Knowing the first line led to the second. Knowing the second led to the third. I built confidence with each repetition.

In the days leading up to my 2016 talk at SXSW on the future of education, my flight response would surface. Instead of giving into it, I gave it my talk: “What did you learn in school today, honey? From California to Connecticut we ask that of our kids every day and every day, every single one of us hears the exact same answer: Nothing!” By the time I took the stage, those lines were engrained in my brain and I was on autopilot.

Take every chance you have to give your speech. Give it inside your head while brushing your teeth. Recite it while you are driving your car. Mull it while you are exercising and watching TV. The more your flight response kicks in, the more practice you will get. Bring on the anxiety! Instead of using those heightened senses and increased energy to flee, you’ll use them as a reminder to prepare. Remember, your subconscious is just as good at fighting as it is fleeing. You simply need to convince it that the fight is winnable.

I often mix my practice up. Sometimes I speak the lines out loud. I practice my pitch and intonation. If the nerves are ever particularly strong, I counter by speaking them particularly loud. Over and over I string together a series of victories. Sure there is the occasional loss, but my subconscious finally gets the message: hey maybe this isn’t so bad. Maybe we don’t have to run after all. Maybe standing and fighting is the best response.

It is good to remember that the pre-event nerves are the exact same nerves you are going to face on stage. The fact that they are surfacing early is a chance to practice facing them. So face them! The stage should never be your first test against your performance anxiety. It should be the last. Perhaps that thought alone is comforting.

One day before your presentation
 Goal: Get your entire talk neatly inside your head.
 Outcome: You know the flow and major points of your talk.

 Method: Refine your message; simulate game-day conditions.

For an especially important presentation I usually give it some serious attention on presentation eve. My favorite way of paying it homage is to take a long walk and recite the entire talk to myself. There is something about the rhythm of light exercise that settles my nerves. Sometimes I give the talk silently in my own head and other times out loud. If you are particularly nervous, try the latter. Giving your talk in even a semi-public place introduces the chance that you are going to be caught talking to yourself. This adds pressure similar to what you are going to face on stage: the fear of people looking at you, of not knowing what to say and feeling really silly. The more you practice under game-like conditions the more convinced your subconscious will be that you are ready to fight. You don’t want to face that kind of stress for the very first time on stage!

Tweet it or forget it. Simple messages win the day.

The threat of being embarrassed by running into someone who will hear you talking to yourself is yet another chance to rehearse under the pressure of real stress. By the time the show starts you will have faced and beaten the pressure so many times that it will give you the confidence to do it one last time for real.

This last run through is also a chance to identify the parts of your presentation that you are struggling with. If you are having trouble remembering certain lines or points, use your slide deck to insert reminders of your message. Or, even better, consider removing the points you are struggling with all together. Chances are if you are having trouble remembering parts of your talk, the audience will have trouble remembering it too. Complicated messages that stress you out and simultaneously are easily forgotten by your audience don’t need to be part of your presentation. Whittle your talk down to something that both you and your audience can more easily remember. Less talk equals less stress.

This is all I do the day before and I generally go to bed a little nervous with my lines running through my head like so many sugarplums on Christmas eve. Whether I sleep or don’t (both have happened with some regularity) by the time I awake, my talk has almost grown to an anticlimax because it has become so familiar. Almost.

The morning of your presentation
 Goal: Synchronization of story and slides.
 Outcome: You are familiar with slide content and progression. 
 Method: Page through and edit your slides.

The morning of your big day is your last chance to get the presentation nestled comfortably in your head. I use it to ensure that my storyline is in sync with my slide deck. I page through my slides (in show mode) making sure I have all the points down. But I don’t recite my speech. I feel like I have done that so many times in the preceding days that any more is overkill. Also, I don’t want to scare myself by identifying gaps in my memory so close to taking the stage. There isn’t enough time to fix any holes so I would rather not find them. The only purpose that could possibly serve would be to reduce my confidence. Whatever I don’t remember will just have to be skipped. So be it. Remember, perfection is not the goal. Beating your stage fright is.

Perfection can wait. Your career can’t. Just give the talk already!

My morning-of process is to go through my slides and edit them. The editing part is important because the extra activity of trying to find something to change helps me think about the content in a very focused way. Having something very specific to do helps distract me from my nervousness.

In fact, I force myself to make at least 5 edits. Yes. Five. I read through the content and make adjustments. If I can’t find corrections, I hone in on the animations and slide progressions. In forcing myself to make edits, I’m thinking about the details on my slides instead of my anxiety.

The edits I make are usually small and centered on parts I am most worried about forgetting. Editing is better than reading. It freshens the deck and the material in my mind. I start at the top and progress through the slides: Show, advance, advance, advance, stop, edit, … show, advance, advance, stop, edit … the sheer repetition, guided by my 5-change rule is hypnotic for me. It distracts me from my anxiety and allows me to concentrate on becoming familiar the slide deck and its subtleties. I always end by advancing through the slides from start to finish to make sure I got it right. One last time through the whole deck with no edits and I am done.

The hour before
 Goal: Push anxiety from your mind.
 Outcome: You are mentally pumped for the stage.
 Method: Find a distraction and embrace it.

I like to be alone for the last hour and not think about my deck, my message or the waiting audience. I put everything out of my mind and focus on getting my mind and body ready for the stage.

For me music does this. I jam to some of my favorite songs. I play them loud. I pull out my favorite bands like Cage The Elephant, Jack White, Royal Blood and my local favorites Ben Union and The Fame Riot. I often listen to a recording my son’s band. It’s Powerful. Uplifting.

I’ve created a curated list that I play to the audience as they are filing in. When I am at a conference, I ask the venue’s tech staff to play the same list which I carry around on a USB. The last thing I need is some lame song rattling around in my head. For me, Kanye is kryptonite; Beyoncé be bad juju. If the venue folks won’t play my music, then I put on headphones which have the added benefit that they keep people from just walking up and making small talk. Headphones make other people think twice before disturbing you. It’s like wearing a big GO AWAY! sign.

The minutes before
 Goal: Convince your subconscious that you got this.
 Outcome: Your body and mind are now show-ready.
 Method: Exercise and get the heart rate up.

Now your mind may decide to fight you one last time. Remember the subconscious works on the currency of habit and reflex and may not be able to help itself even after all the training you’ve just given it. If it rears its ugly head, it will do so by elevating your heart rate, triggering perspiration and making you breath hard.

I like to short circuit this reaction by creating those same conditions in my body and thereby beat my subconscious to the punch. If it has the audacity to appear, it will find that my heart rate is already high and my senses are already on full alert. Thus, it will have nothing to do.

I achieve this with some brisk exercise just before the curtain rises. Pushups are my favorite. I drop and crank out some pushups backstage or, if there isn’t enough room, I stroll around until I find some semi-discreet location and grind out as many as I can, at least until I am winded. Sometimes I run stairs. Experiment! Maybe yoga will do it for you. Or maybe calisthenics.

I then pace around like a prize fighter running my opening line over and over in my head and then drop and do a bunch more. I want my blood flowing and my brain active. My subconscious is no longer capable of changing my heat rate, breathing pattern or sweat production because I’ve already done that to myself. The fright will arrive only to find that its goals have already been met.

When I finally walk on stage, it is my opening line going through my head, over and over. I trust myself to remember the rest of the talk after that.

Me 1. Subconscious nil.

* * *

So there you have it. My process for confronting performance anxiety and gaining control over stage fright is now yours. It’s exposure therapy and the monotony of routine relentlessly applied every time anxiety rears its ugly head. Practiced continuously and rigorously, the subconscious eventually will turn its flight response to a fight response so that all those nerves result in energy instead of panic.

The routine I’ve laid out here has both real and placebic effects. The constant repetition of practice puts my talking points and my slide content at the top of my mind. At the same time, the familiarity of the routine is comforting to me. Every time anxiety appears, I know exactly what to do. There is no guessing and much less room for panic because I know exactly what to do. It either works because it works. Or it works because I’ve convinced myself it works. But in either case, it works. The very energy that used to turn me into a pumpkin now powers my performances. I’ve learned to harness my subconscious to serve me instead of bury me.

The stage may be the new jungle, but with this process you’ve just become the new Tarzan.

[1] Stage fright is not a condition specific to introverts. It’s a universal affliction. According to Psychology Today, more people fear the stage than they fear death: See https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-real-story-risk/201211/the-thing-we-fear-more-death.