Top 3 things I’ve learned about stage fright

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By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

Tomorrow I’m going to attend a luncheon and speak for 20 to 30 minutes to a room full of people. I’m headed to bed early tonight in hopes I’ll be rested and on my “A game” tomorrow.

But we all know the night before a speech is often a restless one. I’ve wasted so many hours lying in bed the night before an event thinking about how much I need to go to sleep, unable to stop internally replaying my presentation over and over again.

The fact that I’m doing the speech at all, though, is a big deal for me. When I say that I was painfully shy as a kid and teenager, I really mean it. I’m sure many of my classmates and teachers assumed I was mute. Shyness was one of the reasons I became a writer. It was just so much easier to talk to people on paper.

It wasn’t until my second year of college that I realized how much that anxiety would hold me back. So I signed myself up for a public speaking course. Being forced to practice public speaking in a class, with the guidance of a teacher, really did help me improve. Did it make me unafraid? Not even a little bit. And I doubt anything will cure me of that.

The fear reminds me of something Jerry Seinfeld talked about in his standup routine. He said, “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two! Does that sound right? That means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

In the years since I took that public speaking class in college, I’ve done my share of public speaking – including a couple of eulogies. I’ve emceed a few events, done public readings from my book, made countless business presentations, and I’m now part of a daily radio show. Just like my college professor said, the practice of getting up in front of people has helped more than anything else. Knowing that all those past public speaking events didn’t kill me reassures me that perhaps I’ll live through the next one, too.

So if you, like me, fear the microphone but don’t want the fear to keep you from taking on opportunities, here are three simple little rules I’ve learned along the way that help me stand behind the podium and deliver.

  1. Remember it’s just a story. You might be calling it a presentation or a keynote address or whatever, but at the heart of any speech is a story. And we’ve been hearing and telling stories since we were little kids. Strip out all the fancy “look how smart I am” language and just tell your story – sincerely, honestly and in a way that lets people know how much you care about it.
  2. Don’t chase rabbits. That means you create a storyline and stick to it, resisting the urge to follow random thoughts down a 20-minute detour. Your audience needs to trust that you value their time, and they can’t do that if you’re busy chasing rabbits.
  3. Give a good show. Any type of public speaking is a performance. Beyond impressive numbers or dazzling facts, audiences want to see a good show. Ask yourself if what you’re preparing is the kind of show you’d want to see.

Finally, remember that most people in the audience are already happy the minute you step up to the podium. Why? They’re immensely relieved that it’s you up there and not them. Break a leg.

gwen rockwoodGwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s new book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.

Photo credit: Lisa Mac Photography

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