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I Speak, Therefore I Freak Out

How to tell your story onstage without losing it

Sara Benincasa
Mar 5 · 16 min read
Here I am feeling not terrified before a show at the Creek and the Cave in 2018. Photo: Mindy Tucker

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When I was seven years old, I shook aloud as I read a poem about Mother’s Day in front of my classmates and their mothers. My own mom wasn’t able to be at that Mother’s Day tea because she had to work at either the fried chicken shack at the racetrack, the newspaper delivery gig, or her babysitting job (she’s a hardworking woman!). But my terror wasn’t due to my mother’s absence — it was due to all those eyeballs staring at me. My sweet teacher held my hand as my voice quaked and I tried not to wet my pants. I got through it, but I knew I would always hate public speaking.

Naturally, I grew up to be a stand-up comic, storyteller, and professional college speaker.

How the hell did that happen?

Well, a few things healed my hatred of the stage. Some of them had to do with maturation. Of course, fear of public speaking is not a sign of immaturity. I meet plenty of very mature folks who despise making speeches (I have a feeling you’re one of ‘em!). But as I grew up and had to do the damn thing over and over again in class, I became accustomed to the idea that speaking in front of a crowd wouldn’t actually kill me (I also acquired more bladder control). More importantly, I learned how to occasionally relax onstage.

When I relaxed, I did a better job. And when I did a better job, I got a better grade, or a superior evaluation, or a nice batch of compliments. These rewards pinged the pleasure centers in my brain, so I eventually began to connect public speaking with good feelings instead of bad ones. This mindset even helped me get into performance, which is how I ended up on the 1994 World Championship Baton and Dance team, thank you very much. I was the second-worst person on the team, but I still have the trophy.

Told you.

Now I’m a comedian and author, though I write a lot more than I perform. I travel to colleges nationwide to speak on mental health awareness (especially — surprise! — anxiety). I do book tours. I host a podcast called “Where Ya From?” in which I interview folks about their origin stories. Sometimes I’m on panels at conferences or festivals. Sometimes I teach workshops at comedy or literary festivals. Sometimes I pitch TV shows in conference rooms full of development executives who clearly made wiser career choices than I. Very occasionally, I show up as a talking head on a TV program. More often, I’m a guest on a podcast or radio show.

Radio or podcast interviews require speaking in front of just one or two people, though I’m aware that many others will hear the recording. When I speak at colleges, I may do a presentation in front of 400 people (book me! I’m fun!). And while it still makes me a little nervous, I enjoy the experience of sharing stories with amazing students. The nervousness is worth it.

I’m certainly not the world’s best elocutionist. I can’t coach you on how to give the best presentation of your life, how to be the most amazing panelist ever, or how to keep everyone in your audience transfixed by your fabulousness — because I’m still figuring out how to do that. Still, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned, because I think one or more of these ideas may help you out. And I learned a long time ago that when people pass their own wisdom on to me, it brings me great joy to pay it forward.

So, with gratitude to my own mentors and teachers, here we go.

Talk to an imaginary friend

Not the way you did when you were a little kid. And not the way you may do today (shout-out to any of my fellow weirdos doing hippie-ass inner child work — it’s effective, but that’s another story). When I get onstage and I’m feeling too nervous to look at an actual audience member, I pick a spot in the back or middle of the crowd — immediately above a real person’s head — and pretend I’m talking to somebody floating there. You can envision a kind, attentive face if you want, or you can just direct your attention to that empty space. You don’t want to stare at one spot the whole speech — if you do, some poor person will truly think you’re staring at them — so pick a few of these spots and switch up your focus every so often.

This is also a great technique for folks with ADD and ADHD. It’s great for anyone who may grow easily distracted by a real audience member putting on makeup, looking at a phone, or passing notes with a friend. It’s also helpful for highly sensitive people, or people with misophonia (i.e., those who have a physically uncomfortable reaction to specific sound triggers). If you have a learning or expression difference that may be helpful for your audience to know — particularly if you’re dealing with a mainly neurotypical audience who may not be familiar with the concept of neurodiversity — feel free to calmly, politely, and matter-of-factly explain that you ask for no flash photography because of XYZ reasons (or simply state it without giving a reason!).

Which brings me to my next point…

Remember that your audience wants you to do well

Okay, maybe not if you’re Senator Cory Booker presenting at CPAC (a thing he probably will never do, and with good reason). But generally, the audience is on your side. Why? Well, it’s not about you so much as it is about them.

They don’t want to be bored or annoyed. They don’t want to expend energy disliking you. Yes, there will be a few people who can derive pleasure that day only from hating other people. But that’s always true, and those people are in the minority.

If you’re reasonably engaging or interesting, the vast majority of your audience will feel better about the time they’ve spent watching you. Also, many of them are terrified (or at least uneasy) at the thought of doing such a presentation themselves, so they may already have some empathy for you.

When I taught high school, one of my students was a very talented poet and performer. However, she’d freak out at slams because she assumed the audience hated her. She grew up rough and was pretty much always spoiling for a fight, so she came to many interactions with aggression. I had no interest in offering her platitudes about how all people are really good at heart because that had not been her lived experience. Also, it would’ve been bullshit, and nobody has a finer bullshit detector than a teen raised in crisis.

Instead, I coached her on the point that a lot of the kids in the audience also loved hip-hop, loved performing, and were there because they liked the art form and thus instinctively liked her. She relaxed onstage and had a much better time. It’s been 15 years and I still have the thank-you note she gave me. It reminds me to check my assumptions in the green room and go onstage with at least a little bit of optimism.

Watch what you eat (and drink, and smoke, and…)

I don’t care what size you are, what your blood sugar reading looks like, or if you took your vitamins this morning. But I can tell you from personal experience that what you consume the day before and the day of a presentation will affect your performance.

I’m sober (one freaking day at a frigging time) but for years I did the usual comedian thing of hanging out in bars before, during, and after shows. Early on, I learned that if I had a couple drinks before I went onstage, I might forget my jokes. And as much as I enjoy coming up with material off the cuff, there’s only so much crowdwork and improvisation I can do while simultaneously panicking that I’ve forgotten my entire plan of attack.

Most people can handle their liquor reasonably well, but I caution you to be careful with it. You can always celebrate afterward, if that’s your thing. Cannabis affects people differently, but I’d watch it with weed, too. I have zero personal experience using cocaine, but hearing cokeheads babble a mile a minute is among the most annoying, boring experiences I’ve ever had to endure — so I’d avoid uppers of the illegal sort. Don’t drink too much espresso, either. I have plenty of personal experience with that one.

What you eat also matters. I’m hypoglycemic, which means I have to watch the ebb and flow of my blood sugar (quitting sugary booze has helped). But even if you’re not hypoglycemic or diabetic, I’d advise against eating a giant candy bar on an empty stomach right before you go onstage. Sugar is the true devil and leads to a host of maladies. The inevitable roller-coaster crash after the sugar high will surely impact the quality of your speech. Drink plenty of water the day before your presentation (and the day of) as well.

Left: This was called the Are You There God, It’s Me Margarita and I drank it AFTER a 2016 presentation. Right: Here I am with Tasty Satan in North Carolina before a presentation at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2016.

You may find certain things calming before a presentation: peppermint tea, boring crackers, sugar-free ginger ale, even prescription medication if you begin to have a panic attack that doesn’t respond to breathing or visualization techniques. Some people (I am one of them) can go onstage after a low dose of Xanax or something similar and do just fine. But what’s fine for one person can be awful for another — I know plenty of comics who can kill onstage when they’re drunk but fall apart on Xanax; I’m the reverse.

While some people will rail at you about the all-consuming evil of taking such a drug, I ain’t one of ’em. However, I’m also someone who’s had a Xanax prescription for 20 years. I’ve only ever taken it when a panic attack felt truly insurmountable. When sobriety extremists shout, “You’re still dependent on something!” I typically make deep eye contact and patiently say, “No, and I think you need to work on your addictive devotion to extreme thinking” because a.) I’m correct and b.) it pisses them off and usually makes them go away. It’s perfectly legal and more effective than smacking someone for being rude, which is not perfectly legal.

I do not suggest using a prescription drug or other powerful substance to calm down or power up before a presentation if you’ve never done so before. You may experience what the pharmaceutical industry calls an adverse event (AE) onstage — bad side effects. Or you may do as I did and babble nonstop for three hours the first time you try Red Bull. So tread lightly.

I was once so agoraphobic I couldn’t leave my bedroom (for real! I wrote a book about it!) so I know whereof I speak for me. I can’t tell you what will be best for you. That’s why all of these suggestions are just that — suggestions.

Be who you really are (mostly)

Think of how you’d tell a story at a dinner party full of friends and acquaintances. You might not relax fully, as everybody there doesn’t know you inside and out. But you’d likely feel comfortable, speak at a normal volume, add some inflections and exaggerations here and there, and take pleasure in the telling of the tale.

That’s how you can approach public speaking. You’ll adjust to the formality of the situation as necessary — no sex jokes at a corporate presentation, obviously. But you don’t always need to be super-serious.

On the other hand, don’t try desperately to be funny if that’s not who you really are. Don’t put pressure on yourself to be the best-looking, smartest, kindest, or most amusing individual in the room. That’s impossible. We can’t all slay on all levels all of the time, except for Janelle Monáe, so don’t try. Focus on telling a good story, whether it’s the story of how you overcame a debilitating mental illness or the story of how your company experienced an incredible return on investment on that brand strategy with the outside vendor in FY2012 and you should really consider revisiting said strategy.

Wear something comfortable yet appropriate

Take photos of yourself wearing the outfit in natural and artificial light. Ditto for your makeup leeeeewk if that’s something you’re doing. Lizz Winstead gave me a brilliant tip years ago when I had to do my first Skype session for a news program: she advised me to do my makeup in natural light and see how it looks on my laptop camera first. (Thank you, Lizz!) If you’re worried about a panty line showing, ask a friend or somebody in the restroom before you present. Fun fact: People mostly don’t care if they can see your underpants. I would advise against wearing day of the week underpants with MONDAY on the butt underneath a sheer dress like somebody did on her first day of college. It’s not why I dropped out of Emerson College (the reason was agoraphobia, typically bad for one’s grades) but it didn’t help.

This Tarjhay jumpsuit would be a good idea if I got a handheld mic, but there’s no belt or easy place to hang a mic pack. Plus, this would be too much bosom for a corporate crowd unless the corporation was Cleavage, LLC. Just because you like the look doesn’t mean it’s right for your presentation. Photo: Gia Cognata

Less is generally more, but if you’re going to be on TV or on a big screen at the venue, find out if makeup and hair services will be provided. If not, do as I advised one of my BFFs, author Melissa Cynova, when she did tarot on TV in Portland recently — get thee to a MAC Cosmetics store or kiosk. They’ll usually do partial makeup or full makeup for a price, or you’ll have to buy $50 worth of products or something. Here is their store locator. If you feel the artist has a heavy hand, take a tissue later in the bathroom and lightly dab at your face until you feel like yourself.

Me and Melissa having a terrible time at her packed event at Powells Books in Portland. Her shirt says PROTECT TRANS KIDS and it’s a shout-out to kids and Don Cheadle. Photo by Potter. Photo of a photo by Melissa.

And makeup ain’t just for gals. If you’re a makeup-fearing dude, anti-makeup lady or makeup-averse genderqueer, genderfluid or agender individual, trust me when I say you’ll at least want some powder that matches your skin tone to offset any sweat or shine under the big lights if you’re going on camera.

Do NOT do a bold red lip unless you’re 100 percent sure you won’t get any on your teeth (a little smear of Vaseline on the two front teeth helps but only if you know you won’t glob it on so it looks like mucus). Only use waterproof mascara. Also, a teensy tiny dab of Preparation H under puffy eyes works. It’s a modeling tip that was passed down to me from on high when I did pageants in New Jersey (now that’s a TV show I should pitch). Just don’t get any in your eye, and only use it if you’ve done a patch test in advance to ensure you don’t have a bad reaction. (I’m obviously not a doctor — I just told you to put butt stuff on your face. Remember, these are suggestions only.)

This is a great outfit for screaming at a man in your kitchen with Sicilian-American rage. It is NOT a public speaking ensemble. However, the bangs on the wig are a good length and show my facial expression, which is key if your speech is being broadcast on some kind of screen. Shadows from bangs can mess up the lighting and make you look even weirder than I do here. Do not have emo bangs on camera unless you’re in an emo band and it is 2002. Photo and makeup: Gia Cognata

All of these tips are meant to help the audience see your facial expressions more clearly and to keep you feeling confident. To that end, make sure your hair doesn’t obscure your face. Keep it simple, unless you’re doing a presentation at a hairstyles convention, in which case, keep it Marge Simpson. That babe always looks fantastic.

If you make a mistake, forgive yourself immediately

If you get flustered, it is perfectly okay to stop for a moment to take a deep breath. If you mess up and say something silly, it is perfectly okay to laugh at yourself. It is okay to apologize, but don’t overdo it. Don’t indulge in endless self-flagellation — it makes people uncomfortable. Don’t make your audience feel pressured to do the emotional labor of shoring up your self-esteem.

I started lightly crying last year in the middle of a speech in front of 250 people in a ballroom in an historic Southern hotel, but it was appropriate to the subject matter (again, I lecture about reducing mental health stigma). My grandma had just died, I had about three months sober, and feelings were raw. We all rolled with it. Some of them cried too. I didn’t ask them to tell me I was pretty or that everything would be okay. I laughed a little through my tears, made a joke, and kept it moving. (Waterproof mascara, folks.)

Make other people write the speech for you

Sometimes stars win Grammys for songs they didn’t even write. Sometimes screenwriters win Oscars for movies they drafted that went through the punch-up wringer and got uncredited rewrites from up to 16,000 people who got huge paychecks and never said a word about it. I’m not telling you to do that. I’m telling you to look up some quotes! They can really enliven a speech.

Beginning a speech with a quote is tired and boring. But it’s become common for a reason. It often helps you summarize your thoughts and set the tone for what follows. I’d advise introducing yourself briefly, thanking the audience for their time, and then inserting a quote if necessary.

A fun power move is to have a series of quotes written on your phone or in your notebook in case you feel stuck, forget a line, or decide the audience needs some variety. Why sweat it out up there when Marcus Aurelius or Solange can do some of the heavy lifting for you? (Be sure to add credit where credit is due, of course.) And speaking of backup…

Bring an extra copy of everything

As I’m writing this, Mercury is in retrograde. It is hard to parse what the hell it means, but supposedly Mercury looks like it’s going backwards but isn’t. My friend Amanda, the Oracle of Los Angeles, says it’s a good time to put our feet up, relax, stop pushing to finish things, and deal with the fact that old friends/lovers/issues may arise for a new look and perspective. Also, the word on the witchy street is that electronics may malfunction especially with regard to communication.

Please enjoy my astrology chart. I am a Virgo rising. Feel free to email me an in-depth and extremely benevolent interpretation of my entire personality and destiny, thaaaaaaanks.

When my dad began working with a new administrative assistant, Rose, she figured out his astrology chart and kept an eye on the heavens. One day he had to do a presentation while Mercury was in retrograde. Rose brought an extra laptop and an extra projector just in case. Well, the first projector started smoking and the first laptop went on the fritz, but no one worried — Rose had all the extra stuff. She and my dad went on to work together for nearly 20 years, and she’s a friend of mine to this day. She’s smart, funny, and always prepared.

Whether you believe in astrology or not — personally, I’m half-Scully and half-Mulder about all of it — we can agree that having backup material was key to saving my dad’s ass that day. So bring a zip drive. Bring an extra notebook. Email your presentation to yourself and somebody who will be available that day. Store it in the cloud! And practice with a non-electronic version just in case PowerPoint obliterates itself. You can even bring hard copies of your presentation, or ask the venue to provide some.

Learn about the microphone in advance

Is it a lavalier (“lav”) mic? Is it a handheld mic? Is it a headset so you look like Britney giving everyone throwback feelings as well as present-day artistic nurturance onstage in Vegas? Find out.

Adjust your jewelry plans as necessary. If you’ll be on TV or radio, don’t wear jangly bracelets or earrings. If you’re going to wear a mic pack, bring a belt or something they can use to affix it to your person or hide it easily. I have had so many production and sound assistants’ hands up or down my shirt or skirt and no, this is not a sexual disclosure (although, honestly, it’d be nice to date somebody with a real job). If you want to make the mic pack thing easy on the production person, wear a suit, regardless of your gender. Janelle Monáe does it and Janelle Monáe is perfect at fashion and life because that’s how they raise the children on Janelle Monáe’s planet of origin, Heaven.

This Oscars 2018 look is what we should all be wearing constantly at all times.

Breathe

This is the most important rule of all. This is the one thing I’m saying that isn’t a mere suggestion. Breathe. When we forget to breathe, we can unconsciously send our body into the fight or flight response. And if you need a primer on that, here’s a very old book trailer from my neglected and ancient YouTube channel to explain it for you. It’s so old that it includes terrible slander of Whole Foods, and I now love Whole Foods. (See? We all evolve.)


I’m not saying these tips will help you find your inner comedian, monologuist, talking head, or professional-college-speaker person. Nor am I saying you’ll fall in love with speechmaking or pontificating in front of a sound amplification device.

But you can do this.

Seriously.

You’ve been through a lot in your life, whoever you are. You emerged from your biological mother, somehow stayed alive all this time, had emotions and illnesses and ups and downs, and now here you are, a person to whom other people are at least begrudgingly willing to listen! To be a person in the world can be extraordinarily difficult. To be a speaker in the world can be better than you think. Give it a try. I believe in you. You and Janelle Monáe. You’re awesome.

Sara Benincasa

Written by

Comedian, author, writer for screens. My latest book is Real Artists Have Day Jobs http://www.SaraBenincasa.com

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