All Articles Leadership Communication Conquering the jitters: 3 lessons you can learn from the stage

Conquering the jitters: 3 lessons you can learn from the stage

8 min read


On a business trip to Eastern Europe not long ago, I found myself on the receiving end of a television microphone. I had just arrived and my very gracious hosts wanted to show off their brand-new office space by interviewing me for a news show. This was great except that it was completely unexpected and, conservatively speaking, I was definitely having a bad hair day. It was raining, I had literally just walked off the plane and my hair was, well … not quite TV-ready.

There were two good things about this: 1) I got to be on network news for an instant and 2) I didn’t have time to be nervous.

Often, our nerves take over the moment we even think about speaking in front of others. Perhaps you’re preparing to for a crucial meeting with an existing client, or pitching new business. Maybe you’re talking with your team at a monthly meeting. Or, you may even be prepping as a first-time panelist for a conference. As a former college theater major I love to be in front of a crowd, but not everyone agrees. Here’s the good news: No matter what size your audience, is you can overcome the jitters by following a few simple tactics I learned from the stage.

What gives you stage fright?

You know the symptoms: you notice that your mouth is dry, your hands are just a little bit shaky and hmm….your voice comes out in a squeak. If you notice the physical symptoms of stage fright first, you’re not alone. If you’re like me, your own imagination can create a stumbling block. When I first started speaking and teaching regularly, I almost always had the same dream the night before each session: I would arrive at the room for my session only to discover that it was completely dark and I was locked out! And to boot, I’d have arrived in my PJs. Fortunately for me, this never actually happened.

When I give coach clients on presentation skills, I like to find out first what worries them most. Whatever your fears are, here’s what you can do about it:

Listen to your voice

What does your voice tell you? It’s true, we all take a lot of selfies these days, and more than a few of them turn into videos. But unless you’re Beyonce, you may not really be listening to how you sound.

Actors and singers spend countless hours training their voices. Most of us may not have the training-or the time-but there are a few things you can do that will make a definite difference. Think about what happens when you are listening to someone who sounds as if they are simply reciting the information: you tune out. Now think about what happen when someone’s voice projects warmth and draws you into the story or conversation. You want to hear more. That’s your goal.

Here are three ways you can achieve that:

  1. Play back your selfie video- And listen to your pace. Are you speaking at warp speed? If your answer is a resounding YES, then take a step back and slow down. Trust me, you most likely aren’t speaking nearly as slowly as you think you are.
  2. Take a breather- It’s ok to take a pause now and then. It not only lets you take a breath, but allow you listeners time to digest what you’re saying.
  3. Check your volume. Have ever been to a meeting or a conference where the speaker talks too softly to be heard, or worse yet, turns “upstage”- toward the screen when speaking? Yep, you might just zone out. Most of us think we project our voices better than we do. You want your voice be heard in a conversational tone, so check to see if yours is at an appropriate level. If you’re offered a microphone at a large meeting, take it. It’s harder than you think to be heard in the back row.

Get out of your comfort zone

While a little nervousness may keep you on your toes, it can be difficult when you’re front and center– the spotlight is on you. Getting out of your comfort zone–even a little–can be like a shot in the arm. Here’s an example: a few years ago I signed up for an acting class at a renowned regional theater. Now, I do speak in front of people almost all of the time, so I thought this would be fun and easy.

Boy, was I in for an education! The class was indeed fun, but it was also a really tough challenge. Not only had I not been to an acting class in, uh, quite a while, but these were serious actors and we were immediately doing scenes from Shakespeare and Chekhov. Remember them? Take yourself back to high school English class for a moment and you may recall that the language of these two wonderful playwrights often seems stilted and downright difficult in today’s world.

I did indeed sweat through the class (yes, I made it to the final performance!). I learned two things that you can use: 1) Be present. And 2) Listen up. Onstage, I quickly learned that it was critical to focus on what was actually going on right then, especially with the other actors. If I didn’t, I would not only lose my lines but affect the entire performance. Sometimes, we’re busy thinking of what we’re going to say next in our presentation. Or, we’re distracted by our various electronics. That’s an easy thing since we’re all so electronically connected these days, but it’s a sure-fire way to make your presentation misfire. Tip: don’t try to multi-task while you’re giving a presentation. It doesn’t work.

The next time someone offers you a speaking spot on a panel, take it. Or offer to lead an in-house managers’ meeting. Surprisingly, getting out of your comfort zone can do just the trick. Why? Because it will make you practice!

Practice up!

If the idea of rehearsing conjures up images of piano practice when you were 7, give it another shot. Rehearsing your presentation pays off. Imagine you are at a play: the production you see is up on stage is seamless. What you don’t see is all of the action that takes place behind the scenes and before the production. You don’t see the actors rehearsing their lines or the stage crews practicing their cues. True, it takes talent to pull it off. But it also takes a whole lot of rehearsal.

Here are three tips you can try today:

  1. Use a pre-talk routine: Golfers use it. So do baseball players. I’m talking about a “pre-game” routine-there’s something to be said for setting up your talk the same way each time. For example, if I’m speaking at a conference or even for a client, I always check out the room and any equipment I’ll be using in advance. I also have the same routine for making sure I have all of the materials I need. This sets the stage and lets you do what you do best.\
  2. Stop jiggling: Or waving your hands. Or playing with your hair or the change in your pocket. You get the idea-stop fidgeting. It’s no mean feat for some of us to just remain still so practice it.
  3. Look in the mirror: I mean this literally. One young colleague recently told me he had indeed practiced his part in an upcoming meeting—in front of his laptop, so he could read his script. As you might guess, his presentation wasn’t very effective. What was the problem? You guessed it: his eyes were only on his script.

The best way to perfect your next presentation is to practice standing up in front of a mirror. Better yet, have a colleague or friend video you. This way you can see how you look (are you fidgeting?), and how you sound. You need to hear how the words come out of your mouth, which isn’t necessarily the same as the way they may be written in your script.

Follow these strategies and eventually (I promise!) you’ll become comfortable and jitter-free. Even if you’re not on TV.

Take our 10-second poll and find out what everyone’s biggest fears really are.


Shannon Alter is president of Alter Consulting Group where she offers strategic organizational assessments, training and leadership developments. Be sure to join the discussion on Alter’s blog at Connect with her on Twitter and with Alter Consulting Group at LinkedIn.