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Stage Fright Glossophobia Communication Apprehension Performance Anxiety

It was surprising that this student had such a strong reaction to being called to read her homework assignment aloud in front of the class. She was just as shocked by her reaction since she had no clue that she had stage fright; as this was the first time she had ever been in front of a group of people. Her walk to the front was sure-footed, and she began reading without looking at the class with a loud enough voice. But something, maybe a pencil scratching, a foot tapping, or a throat clearing, made her look up and all of the class’ eyes gathered into one like Sauran from Lord of the Rings. Her hands began to shake until her assignment fell to the ground, her next move was not to pick it up and continue, but to dash out the door and keep running until she could not anymore.

Stage fright, glossophobia[1], communication apprehension, social anxieties…are amongst the various labels for this anxiety over speaking to/in front of people. Surveys have revealed that people are more frightened of speaking in front of an audience than dying. This does not make it sound so easy to overcome. But, the thing is, a lot of research has been run to understand and test the characteristics of the thought processes of a person experiencing stage fright. Research has discovered three prevalent assumptions amongst those experiencing stage fright:

1 That often the fear is fed by a belief that those in the “audience” will know how nervous the speaker/performer is.

2 Those who suffer from such nervousness are convinced no one else feels as nervous as they. This culminates to the belief that the nervousness is a rare, abnormal experience.

3 Hopelessness seals the deal—the assumption that stage fright is incurable.

How has the researched fared in verifying any of these assumptions? Let us take this point by point:

Point ONE: Can a group of people actually tell exactly how nervous a speaker/singer/actor is? NO, they CANNOT. This is not a conciliatory assurance—this is a documented surety[4]. Have you ever been called at a bluff? How about being caught in a lie? Did you know that a person is at their most nervous when they lie? But there is no human lie detector because no one can tell all the time reliably when anyone else is lying even when trained at recognizing “tells” (indicators of deception) because these are unreliable predictors. So, if at your MOST nervous no individual is likely to be able to tell to any reliable degree, how could they know exactly how nervous you are when presenting? They cannot. ASSUMPTION ONE is FALSE

Point TWO: is stage fright a rare occurrence? The idea that a person is alone in performance anxiety is partly fed by the misconception of the first assumption—because we cannot really tell how nervous a performer is, the misconception that NO ONE else feels nervous is formed (after all, no one else seemed to be as nervous as I FEEL). Fortunately what SEEMS to be another person’s lack of nervousness has NOT been gauged accurately. In fact, nervousness in front of others is NORMAL. Nervousness that escalates to fear producing anxiety is pretty common, too, 75% of people experience stage fright when called upon to perform in front of others. Social Phobia has performance anxiety at its height labeled as Glossophobia (extreme fear of public speaking/performance marked by fainting, running until fatigued, urinating, or defecating on self. That IS rare, as rareas a person being a Talkaholic (complete lack of inhibition coupled with a desire to fill all silences with personal musings). So, unless you cannot stop speaking, like a Talkaholic, or runaway until you fatigue and/or urinate when in front of others like a Glossophobe, STAGE FRIGHT as it is generally experienced is not that rare. ASSUMPTION TWO is FALSE.

Point THREE: If you have stage fright, is it incurable? This is the third misconception. Stage Fright is not a permanent condition! First, knowing the degree of stage fright one has can help assess how to battle it. The Personal Report of Communication Apprehension (PRCA) [5] available in pretty much every speech communication book is only twenty four questions that can shed some light on your level of apprehension in performance situations. You may find your level is low and easily overcome. It may be that you have an average level of nervousness, and this assurance of normality may help buoy your resolve to perform. If you have a moderate level you may begin some of the available techniques for performance success earlier than others. A high level result can let a person know if they might benefit from a few sessions with a counselor well in advance of a performance. For the vast majority, the levels will be from normal to moderate. The techniques that follow can help conquer stage fright.

People with average to moderate stage fright can benefit by first recognizing that the three assumptions of a nervous performer we listed before are FALSE: they canNOT tell how nervous you are, you are NOT ALONE, and you CAN OVERCOME this. Now, realizing those haunting assumptions were misconceptions, try some well researched methods to focus and settle yourself for a speech or performance. These include:

-positive thinking (counter those misconceptions as they rear their ugly heads and encourage yourself)

-healthy eating (avoid predispositions to skip meals or overeat when nervous) of avoiding junk foods sugary snacks

-awareness of breathing (people have a tendency to breathe shallowly and have higher heart rates before, during, and after incidents of stage fright) so that if breathing is shallow and irregular, conscious deep breaths so that even breathing returns can help

-relaxation, particularly muscle relaxation: clench the fist noticing how the tension of the muscles is stress, then slowly uncurl your fingers taking note of the feeling of relaxation and your control over moving from stress to relaxation; lean your head back so that it touches your upper back holding it there a moment and then slowly raising the head back to normal, flexing the foot and then releasing…each time a muscle group is stressed be conscious of the difference between the tension and relaxation and grab hold of that feeling of control

-visualize the upcoming performance going well (it also helps to be familiar with the setting of the speech/performance); research has shown that if you visualize success you increase the chances of success

-finally, prepare what you will be doing carefully and diligently –do not let apprehension of the performance delay the work that goes into writing a speech, singing a song, or acting in a play because you are setting up obstacles for yourself; instead breeze through the compositions of the performance smoothly by fully preparing and practicing it.

There is no reason stage fright should keep you from achieving your goals. The author of this article is the girl who dropped her assignment and ran, by the way, and now I teach speech. How does the saying go? If I can do it, ANYONE can. Actors, singers, politicians, musicians, lawyers, oh and a host of other professions offer testimony after testimony of the nervous to the outright glossophobic performers who STILL perform (Barbra Streisand, Kim Basinger, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Lucille Ball, Mel Gibson, Abraham Lincoln…). Do not deprive the world of your performance, either.

[1] DSM-IV

[2] ABC Online. Natural Born Liars.

[3] Deception Detection, v. 166 (5).

[4] Sciencelinks.com

[5] McRoskey, J. & Richmond, V. Allen & Bacon (2006). The Personal Report of Communication-24.