I left college in NYC with a degree in Vocal Performance and crippling stage fright. For the first few years out of school I could hide from the fear because I wasn’t putting myself out there to be seen, judged, evaluated, or even praised. After one Summer of auditions, I took an office job and spent most of my free time at brunch, watching reality TV, and going to DJ nights.
There were times I tried to open back up and fight through the overwhelming dread of being in front of people. I had a brief stint in a band called The Boys and Girls Club. There were three of us in the group and we played a total of four shows. And four out of four times I had a good time once I was up on stage. A few minutes in the nerves would go away. But the build up to feeling okay was rough.
We had one show at SUNY Purchase and I remember wandering the halls looking for a classroom to warm up my voice, even though I had warmed up my voice an hour before. I convinced myself that my vocal cords went back to whatever state I assumed they were in before my initial warm-up. And if I didn’t do it again I wouldn’t be good enough. So I found a room and paced back and forth while singing “Defying Gravity” from Wicked because that would do the trick. Spoiler alert: It didn’t. That method of warming up and calming down was only a temporary band-aid on a bigger wound.
Flash forward, I’m in Japan teaching English in the rural Northern island of Hokkaido. I am traveling to 25 schools, some of which have only 9 kids in the entire building. Since I only visited each school a handful of times, my job was to introduce myself in English, talk about my hobbies, where I’m from and share something about my culture. It was like a mini one-woman show told through very simple stories.
I made poster boards with pictures of my family and my favorite places in NYC, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. I talked about musicals and working for a company that produced Broadway shows. There were a few classrooms that wanted to hear me sing. And in those moments, I did not get the same amped up “What if they don’t like me?” “What if they are not impressed?” “What if I fail?” feelings that I used to. Why? Because I had to be myself. There was no hiding. I had to communicate who I was in very basic terms so they’d understand. And as simple as it had to be, I still wanted to represent myself in a way that felt good to talk about.
I still got nervous going to each new school for the first time, but the more I got in front of these kids — who were actively listening to me and genuinely rooting for me — the more I could calm down in advance of opening my mouth. And the more I shared my story, the more confident I became in who I was and how I wanted to express it.
Flash forward again: I am back in Philadelphia and I have an apprenticeship at the Arden Theatre Company. It’s a year long program where me and 5 other apprentices learn every single job within the organization. One day I’m building sets, the other writing grants, the next day I’m cleaning the actor’s house. Then I’m teaching classes, understudying a role, and helping to run a marketing campaign. It was a combination of grad school and boot camp!
Very early on in the theater season I was assigned to assistant stage manage a play called Gee’s Bend. I had a lot of responsibilities — like folding the quilts (a key character in the show!) and helping actor’s quickly change costumes. But my two main responsibilities were public facing. I had to push a water fountain out to downstage left for one of the actor’s to drink from it. And I had to give a curtain speech at the beginning of each performance, telling audiences members to turn off their phones, unwrap their candy, and to identify the emergency exits.
At the very beginning of the run both of these responsibilities ramped up my nerves. I created unrealistic scenarios in my mind:
If I’m wheeling out the water fountain then I must become one with the water fountain and essentially think of it as a character, or the audience will notice me and I will ruin the play.
If I mess up this curtain speech then everyone will walk out of the theater before the play even starts, or the show will get a bad review.
I was carrying the weight of an entire production on my shoulders.
15 minutes before the first preview, I have my curtain speech on a clipboard and I go and find a corner backstage and I start speaking out loud over and over again. It wasn’t calming me down enough, but at least I had put in the work. I don’t remember how many performances there were of Gee’s Bend, but it had to be close to 100. By the time the run was over I was having fun giving the curtain speech. I wasn’t reading from the clipboard. I was in my body. I knew that my task was to deliver the information and let everyone get settled in for the story. I had come to realize that thanks to the brilliance of the lighting designer, no one could even see me wheeling out the water fountain. I left the run of that show wanting to feel those feelings again — to stay grounded, comfortable in my own skin, and to feel joy when connecting with an audience.
It’s ten years later and I still get nervous. I get stage fright more so when I’m not on a stage. This happens just before I walk into a networking event, on a sales call, or am teaching a workshop at a big company. But it goes away within seconds now, because I know what I need to do for it to go away. I have mastered this technique when I’m on a big stage and now I need to translate it to every day communication.
I need to take a series of steps to center myself, trust that I did the work and then let it all go in the moment. I must go through a preparation process that includes practicing, timing, and repeating whatever it is I need to say. But most of all I need to love what I am and doing and saying, and I need to fully put myself out there — whether it’s a curtain speech, an informal introduction or a personal story.
There is the way to communicate with ease and stay as true to yourself as you can be. It’s a hybrid of having a grounded, heart-centered way of being. It’s putting in the work to communicate in a dynamic and passionate way. It’s calm confidence.
Update: On May 22nd I’m teaching a two hour Master Class on this topic. We’ll explore ways to overcome your individual public speaking obstacles and grow what you identify as your strengths. We’ll go through the Public Speaking Checklist and Storytelling Cheat Sheet that I designed specifically for fighting this type of anxiety and finding your calm confidence as quickly as possible.
I’m really excited to share these techniques with you. Meeting in a small group setting is a surefire way to discover that you are not alone in your worries, and that you really have all of the tools inside of you already. They just need to be sharpened.
If you are reading this blog after May 22nd, you can sign up and be the first to know when the next session opens up. You can also download the Public Speaking Checklist and Storytelling Cheat Sheet from that page and give it a go on your own.
Post script - I just found the four demo tracks that my band put out in 2005. One of the songs is called “Crawling Like A Robot” and we coined our genre “folktronica.” It’s hilarious. I’m willing to share the track with anyone who really wants to hear it. Just reach out.