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This article was originally published by IBM developerWorks at

All the world's a stage
And that means the business world too

Steve Bruner
Comedian, and developerWorks columnist
June 2000

 You asked for it
 Get over it
 Fear of failure
 Fear of the unknown
 Breathe deeply
 Fear of "the face"
 Fear of stumbling
 The bottom of your fears
 Getting perspective
 About the author

Part of being successful in business means setting yourself up as a target for attention. Attention means you're going to be in the spotlight. And the spotlight means speaking in front of audiences. You might think that stage fright doesn't happen at a business meeting, that it happens only on stage. There is nothing called "business meeting fright," after all. But don't get cocky: that's only because "business meeting fright" isn't catchy enough to have caught the attention of the pollsters, and not because it doesn't exist.

When you're lucky, you're presenting to eager investors and venture capitalists, or being interviewed or questioned at a press conference because of your cutting-edge product, or maybe because you just went public. Or maybe you're presiding over meetings in your growing company, and making speeches about better-than-expected earnings at shareholder meetings.

But if you're unlucky, you might have to talk about layoffs to those you employ, or comment on expectations that haven't been met, to those you owe money to.

Good news or bad, prepared or off the cuff, going into business means entering the limelight, and once there, you may, one day, fall victim to the number one, single most terrifying fear known to the majority of those who get asked about such things in opinion polls. Of all major fears that the human condition can experience, public speaking is number one. Fear of DEATH doesn't even enter the top ten list until around number six. To analogize, if horror movies were real life, those kids attempting to escape the deranged but seemingly invulnerable killer would rather continue their futile efforts than keynote a seminar on "How to escape the deranged but seemingly invulnerable killer."

You asked for it
By going into business, you are asking to keynote that seminar.

The good news is, there are a lot of things you can do to prepare yourself. First, always prepare for each speech, conversation, or interview. If you don't prepare, you deserve to be frightened.

Even when you're prepared, a measure of nerves is normal prior to something important. It seems to me that if something is worth doing, it's also worth being anxious, nervous, and/or excited about. What matters is what we do with those feelings.

You think it couldn't happen to you? Some of the biggest hams of our times have suffered from it: Sir Lawrence Olivier once did a play with his back mostly turned toward the audience because of stage fright. Barbra Streisand was only recently able to overcome the stage fright that had kept her from performing in public for many years. It can happen to anyone, at any time — even after 100 successful performances. The 101st can be the one that gets you.

Get over it
Or not.

In all the cases of stage fright that I know of, the key thing they had in common was motivation to get over it. So, like an acting coach, I say: find your motivation. (Don't worry — I'm not going to ask you to emote.)

Write it down, if you have to. Bolstering your confidence by understanding the importance of your speech is a great way to help remove the irrational fear of stage fright. Especially if you are having to give bad news, or otherwise make a speech you don't want to make.

Another way to kill that irrational fear is to find what you are afraid of. Somebody smarter than me once said, to face fears is to end them.

The important thing is not to panic. Stage fright puts you into "fight or flight" mode, and the best way to overcome it, is to face the fear, and to fight it.

Fear of failure
One of the most important ideas when faced with public speaking, is to picture yourself succeeding. People have a tendency, when nervous, to picture the worst happening. And our brain has a way of making the things we think about come true. So quit thinking negatively. Put the pro-vibe on it. Postive visualization is a very strong aid to overcoming the obstacle of generalized fear.

I always suggest practicing in front of a mirror before a performance. But when you are done practicing, spend some extra mirror time telling yourself: you can do this thing, and do it well! And after you tell yourself you can do it, it's important to picture yourself doing well, also. Picture yourself giving the whole speech, and succeeding. It's the whole "little engine that could" thing. It's very important to think you can. You don't have to read it in Cosmo to believe it: self confidence is cool.

Fear of the unknown
Now, part of stage fright is a fear of the unknown. The big unknown in speeches is the audience's reaction (or lack thereof, which is even worse than a bad reaction). One good way to get an expected reaction is for the speaker to win them over quickly. A time-honored, tried-and-true method is to use an anecdote. Usually, this will be a funny thing to say right up front. (Note: avoid using the funny anecdote when giving bad news, however. You aren't looking for yucks to loosen up your audience right before you lay them off.)

An anecdote or story is helpful, because it completely separates the introduction from YOUR part of the speech, and your ego can take one last moment alone, before you get to the part of the presentation that's really important. It is an ice breaker that relaxes your audience, and it also relaxes you. And relaxation, like its cousin confidence, is a natural predator of stage fright.

Breathe deeply
Don't forget the body's natural remedy for fear: breathing. There is no activity mental, physical, or spiritual, that can't be improved by focusing on the basic but important stuff like breathing. (Remember: hyperventilating is not considered breathing.)

If you are struck by stage fright, then take a few deep breaths, and here's a good trick — try to yawn. Not only is this an easy and natural way to get more oxygen to your brain, it will make you look (and feel) relaxed. After all, when was the last time you saw a tense person yawning, or seen a person yawn who was being stalked by a deranged but seemingly invulnerable killer? Get the whole "oxygen to the brain" thing working for you. (Note: you probably want to do your yawning backstage before your speech begins, not in front of the audience).

Fear of "the face"
So far we've listed a number of DOs. Now here is an important DON'T. In every audience, there is a face that is wearing the worst expression you have ever seen. It looks like the face is so thoroughly disturbed by your subject matter (or maybe, just with YOU) that their discomfort might affect or even derail you. The simple solution: don't look at it.

Some people become fascinated trying to win over the face. Big mistake. It's an impossible, losing strategy. A no-win situation. Don't spend any time trying to win the face to your side. Instead, focus on those who do look interested, even enraptured. And if everyone looks like the face, then don't look at any of them. Just choose a spot on their individual foreheads: from the audience it looks just like real eye contact.

As for the face — it is an evil, stage fright-inducing incarnation from the nether realm. At least, that is our perception of it. In reality, the person who owns it probably just got a bill from his lawyer, or he just found out that his daughter got an internship at the White House. That is why you will never win them over: they aren't even in the same room with you. Of course, it is possible that they really do just hate you. So what? You have a speech to make. Don't worry about it. After the speech, if you're still being stalked by the face — then you can start to worry. Not now.

Fear of stumbling
Sometimes stage fright will strike in the middle of your speech. To protect yourself, carry a cheatsheet outline of your speech on an index card, or even your whole speech on paper. If worst comes to worst, you can always read your way out of it. But often, the simple possession of this kind of physical anchor is like a security blanket: you're never anxious when you do have it, only when you don't.

Getting to the bottom of your fears
One last method, which I have been told has helped many over their fear of public speaking — and thus I include it — is to picture your audience in their underwear. I see the point: people in their underwear would be less presupposing and far less impressive in a formal situation. The theory may be sound. I don't know, I've never tried it. This method has never appealed to me. Unfortunately, I have a very active imagination, and I'm afraid that my visions would only make me more nervously excited.

Putting it into perspective
As a final thought, it helps to put things into a perspective. It is just a speech, after all. Just a few minutes out of an entire lifetime. How important is that, really, in the cosmic scheme of things?

Besides, if all else fails, and if your speech comes off miserably, you do have options. You have the option to run off crying, for instance, or change your haircolor, your name — even your country of residence! That is why there is always the "flight" option.

But if you end up collecting too many frequent (stage) flight miles when you are called upon to speak in public, then changing your name and haircolor are the least of your worries. You might want to change your profession.


About the author
Steve Bruner has been a stand-up comic for 13 years. He has performed and written material for several TV shows, including "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno, Fox Television's "Haywire," and the cable channel Showtime. He'll perform anywhere, even in an elevator, but mostly he plays clubs, colleges, corporate events, and cruises. He can be reached at

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Updated: October 29, 2001 (KB)

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