I once had a 45-minute panic attack during a performance in front of a very tough audience. I had been performing and teaching for years and loving it. However, this specific show was during a particularly rough time in my life and unfortunately, panic attacks were quite frequent at the time. It also didn’t help that the show was in a small event room packed to the brim with angry looking elderly people that didn’t find me funny or charming. It was a perfect storm of personal stress, claustrophobia, and self-doubt. So when the attack hit, I wasn’t surprised, just extremely uncomfortable.
Fortunately, I remember thinking “this is exactly what many of my clients go through every time they go up on stage to do their speeches.” It ended up being an amazing educational experience, one that put me in the clients’ shoes, and one that forced me to personally see if my tools for overcoming stage panic really worked! I am proud to say, they all did!
The major trick that got me through the anxiety attack was ADAPTION.
MOVING: By moving around and positioning myself in different parts of the room I was able to take the attention off of me and direct the audience’s focus on something else for a little bit. This gave me just enough time to catch my breath and regain some semblance of mental order. Interestingly, the panic attack subsided as soon as all eyes were away from me. It reminded me that I was going to be ok after the show and that I could get through it. At times, I stood to the side of the audience or even behind them a few times while directing their attention to the powerpoint that was front and center.
ENGAGING VISUALS: I always invite speakers to use any means necessary to take eyes off of them! A visually interesting powerpoint can be a great tool if done correctly. Nobody will thank you for cramming your slides with chunks of written content and poorly organized pictures that don’t relate to what you’re talking about. However, if you keep written words to clear bullet points, and use 1 or 2 pictures that convey emotions and perfectly illustrate the impact of your topic then audiences will have something to engage in…that’s not you. They will be so fixated on the pretty visuals, that they won’t notice you doing breathing exercises in the back. This will give you the necessary few moments you’ll need to regain confidence to get through the presentation.
COMFORT ZONE: I’m a big fan of working WITH-IN your comfort zone. The notion of working OUTSIDE of it makes no sense to me. It has been my experience that people will push themselves only as far as they are will to go at that particular point in life. This doesn’t mean that next you won’t feel more apt to try something that scared you a month ago. It just means that it’s more effective to be sensitive to where you are today, and what you need to do to feel good in the moment. Working within your boundaries is a much more reasonable approach when it comes to speaking if you have a fear of it. Find where you ARE comfortable in the room or with the content. Perhaps there’s a section that you are super confident about. How can you bring that confidence into other sections of the speech? Or is there something that makes you uncomfortable about a particular topic you are talking about? Is there a way of retooling the content in a way that makes you as excited as the other section? The key is to take care of yourself, and genuinely be aware of which parts of the process you actually enjoy (or at least don’t hate as much).
So, the point is, that is your duty to ONLY do what makes you comfortable. If it’s a matter of moving around, or changing your materials to fit your unique voice and point of view it is up to you to take control of your environment as a speaker so that you can feel more powerful and confident. Trust me, your audience will thank you for it!