Anxious about public speaking? Try these tips from the theatre

Hone your performance skills with these techniques from stage actors. Linsey Todd and James Layton encourage us to smell the greasepaint


2 Apr 2024
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For many performers, stage fright is their greatest fear. It can strike unexpectedly, making even the idea of setting foot on a stage in a packed theatre about as appealing as a dive into shark-infested waters.

Here’s the thing: “stage fright” is a misleading term. It’s not confined to the stage, and it can affect any of us at any given moment. You might not consider yourself a performer, but make no mistake – you absolutely are. We all perform on a daily basis. This could be on a small scale, in adapting our behaviour to match our company, or on a larger scale, like when delivering a presentation, pitch or lecture.

For academics, we want to look at larger scale “performance” – public speaking. As BA Performance lecturers, we can share techniques and approaches from the world of theatre to help overcome any anxiety you might feel ahead of your next performance.

Don’t underestimate the value of a vocal warm-up

A vocal warm-up stretches your vocal chords and prepares your voice to be as strong as it can be ahead of public speaking. Humming is one of the simplest vocal warm-ups – and one of the most effective, with the vibrations having the added benefit of creating an internal massage, reducing stress.

Repeating tongue twisters helps improve diction and can also help you work past any phrases you have difficulty with or find yourself tripping over as you speak.

Breathing techniques can reduce stress

Breathing exercises are a simple way of reducing stress and regulating the nervous system. There’s evidence of other benefits, too, such as boosting concentration and increasing energy and motivation. A simple but helpful technique involves inhaling for the count of four, holding for four, exhaling for four and then holding for four once again. Slowly repeating this process for a few minutes helps bring a sense of calm and focus – ideal before any form of public speaking or for tackling nerves more generally.

Increase your self-awareness

Self-awareness is a valuable asset for public speakers. You might feel anxious about public speaking, but there might be elements of the process that you enjoy. When it comes to the stage, that’s obvious – there’s a thrill that comes with performing. Sparking a reaction from an audience is exhilarating. The same can be true for public speaking. Reflecting on what you enjoy about the process helps identify personal strengths from which you can build on.

Try power posing

A power pose is an open, expansive posture, which can foster a sense of power. It might sound strange, but research has found that this can reduce cortisol and increase testosterone, leading to a sense of psychological and physiological readiness. An example of a power pose would be embracing your inner superhero by standing tall with your shoulders back, feet hip-width apart and your fists on your hips. Holding this position for as little as three to five minutes can increase feelings of power and confidence.

Show compassion – to yourself

Whether on the stage or in a lecture theatre, we’re typically our own worst critics. We beat ourselves up over the most trivial of matters – things we wouldn’t think twice about in other people. It’s important for performers to learn the skill of self-compassion, which in turn leads to a sense of soothing and safety. One way you can do this is by giving yourself permission to make mistakes. In doing so, you may foster a sense of self-acceptance, which can lead to increased confidence.

By embracing our role as “performers” and applying techniques that benefit stage performers, screen actors and singers, we can reduce stress, improve delivery and make public speaking a more relaxed and fulfilling experience.

Always remember that it’s perfectly normal to feel nervous when it comes to public speaking. Performers and academics with decades of experience behind them still deal with forms of stage fright. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and, as we’ve outlined, there are many techniques that you can use to make life much easier. The research shows it doesn’t take much to make a difference in public speaking confidence, but it can take an investment of time – something that’s often in short supply. It’s an investment that’s likely to pay dividends, however, in many of the roles we play as academics.

Linsey Todd and James Layton are BA Performance lecturers at the University of the West of Scotland.

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