Five Ways To Combat Stage Fright

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I was in a bar full of strangers while my stomach was full of beer and fireball whiskey. I spotted a guitar in the dimly lit room resting against a stand with a piece of construction paper taped to the wall above with the words scribbled in sharpie, “up for grabs! Open Mic.”

“Fear cuts deeper than swords.” – George R.R. Martin

I had done plenty of spoken word performances back in Los Angeles, but even after years of playing the guitar I had never performed an acoustic set. So with my swagger (brought to you in part by liquid courage) I got on up and asked myself, “what song would best represent the United States to these friendly Estonians?” Then I had my answer: “Wagon Wheel,” by Old Crow Medicine Show.

I was more than likely singing off key, but I didn’t care. I wanted to play and sing my heart out (and impress the other two American women who I became acquainted with throughout the night), and that’s exactly what I did. About a year later I was at an open mic performance in my hometown, and I got on up and did the same exact thing, though this time with a different song. 

There is a combination of impulsivity and hours of implementing techniques I have learned throughout the years when it comes to performing in front of others.

When I talk about stage fright, I’m not strictly speaking of playing a song on the guitar or reciting a poem in front of a large crowd. It can be a number of circumstances such as giving a presentation, interviewing for a job, or striking up a conversation with a stranger in a language that you are trying to learn.

Here are five ways I combat stage fright. I hope it helps you, too.

Practice

The more you practice, the more confident you become. It probably gets old hearing it time and again from me, but I cannot stress how important and essential practice is towards achieving what you want, and that includes fighting fear. I can play the guitar with confidence in front of 10, 1,000, or 100,000 people, because I literally spent hours upon hours staying up at night in my room practicing musical scales and exercises. 

You can practice by yourself or with your friends. You can look in the mirror or record it on a video. Track your progress, and you will find things to improve upon and gain confidence in doing so.

Drop the Ego

At my first spoken word performance I had a poem I titled, “Track Number 5,” and a man in the front row scoffed at this and shook his head. I couldn’t let this outward remark of negativity get to me, so I dropped my ego instead of getting offended. If I took myself too seriously I wouldn’t be able to perform. You have to stop caring about what others think. Most of the time, they’re more concerned with themselves than they are with you, so there’s no reason to be afraid over screwing up, even if you fail miserably like I have in the past.

Another example is when I’m practicing my target language with someone who is a native speaker. I often get nervous and afraid to articulate everything I know because I get stage fright. I become concerned with how I look and how I sound. I need to remind myself that I can’t be afraid to look stupid. In a podcast with Tim Ferris, Luis von Ahn, co-founder and CEO of Duolingo, stated that the most successful people at learning another language are those who are not afraid to look stupid.

Be Prepared 

Know what you are capable of, and what you are not capable of. Stick to what you’ve practiced. Don’t hope that some random stroke of luck will step in to make you greater than what you haven’t prepared for. Know your limits, your weaknesses, and your strengths. If I know my vocal abilities and know that I can’t reach a high note, I won’t try to sing like Michael Jackson. If I’m good at telling stories, I’ll make sure to give an anecdote or two in a presentation.

Be Yourself 

Don’t try to be someone else. People can see right through that. Show up with integrity and let the people (or person) know from the start why you are there. You might hit a few wrong notes or say “uhm” too many times, but your personality will shine and be remembered.  

Do it again, and again, and again

Rise, and rise again. Until lambs become lions. Robin Hood, 2010

With practice comes not perfection, but performance. Don’t stop there. The more you do something, the less afraid you will be at doing it. This comes down to just about any task at hand. Don’t stop. Just keep moving forward. 

Fear is a natural reaction, and courage is not the absence of it, but the knowledge that it exists and going through the motions anyway. The fear never goes away, it’s still present in every performance and presentation that I give, but it’s put on the backburner in order for something greater to be achieved.

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