Avoiding stage fright: How well do you need to know your material?

Avoiding stage fright can be as easy as knowing your material - make notes for yourself to read!

Avoiding stage fright is a major concern of many, especially those who are new to performing or presenting. And that’s totally understandable: no one wants to suffer through a bad experience, especially if they already have a touch of social anxiety. So what is my big tip for avoiding stage fright, especially if you’re not yet hugely experience? Actually, I have two: let go of the need to be right, and be VERY well prepared.

Wanting to be right.

People learn that being right is what counts from early childhood. Indeed, some would argue – like Robert Kiyosaki – that that the school system is predicated on the concept of the one right answer. [1] FM Alexander argued that the need to be right causes children to suffer unnecessarily. Referring to the parents, Alexander says:

“it occurs to very few of them to consider whether, in this process of “education” (i.e., in certain specific directions) the child’s fear reflexes will not be unduly and harmfully excited by the injunction that it must always try to “be right,” indeed, that it is almost a disgrace to be wrong;.” [2]

But if you’re doing something new, and especially if you’re not great at it yet, your chances of making mistakes is high. And that may only get worse once you’re in front of an audience.

Social anxiety in cockroaches

In the 1950s psychologist Robert Zajonc conducted some interesting research into how an audience affects us when we are engaged in tasks of varying difficulties. Though he later did use human subjects, Zajonc’s initial studies were done with cockroaches! He constructed a maze, in which the cockroaches had to scuttle from a lighted area towards the end of the maze where they would find their preferred dark enclosed space. Sometimes the maze was easy, and sometimes it was difficult. And sometimes the cockroaches in the maze had an audience of other cockroaches watching them. In both the cockroach experiments and later research with humans, a subject with an audience would complete the easy task faster. But when faced with a complex task – like a tricky maze – AND and audience, the subjects would go more slowly than if they were completing the complex task unobserved.

This was also found when psychologists studied pool players in the 1980s. Author Adam Alter explains:

Strong players, who sank 70 per cent of their shots while playing alone, made 80 per cent of their shots in the presence of four onlookers. Meanwhile, weaker players who made only 36 per cent of their shots alone, sank a lowly 25 per cent when observed. The stronger players were energised by the presence of onlookers, but the same audience distracted the already overloaded weaker players.[3]

Zajonc’s research – and the work on pool players – suggests that a phenomenon known as social inhibition is likely to cause you to make mistakes. In essence, your brain is so overloaded with dealing with the social pressure of having people watching that you’re more likely to foul up complex tasks. And if you were to add to that overloaded brain the conviction that being right is the only thing to be, you’re priming yourself for a truly lousy experience.

Avoiding stage fright, step 1: let go of being right

Particularly if you’re new to performing, you need to work hard to make sure that you won’t suffer from brain overload during the performance or presentation. One of the key ways you can do this is to accept that, because you are new to the experience, you WILL make mistakes. Like the inexperienced pool players, the likelihood is that you’ll lose some of your performance readiness under the gaze of an audience. So accept it. Embrace your inexperience, rather than judge yourself harshly if something goes awry.

Avoiding stage fright, step 2: know your stuff

From Zajonc’s research, and the research of those who followed him, we know that our response to an audience is partially dependent on whether we perceive what we’re about to do as easy or difficult. If we know the material well, or if we perceive a task to be easy, then the presence of an audience will enhance our ability to perform. If we don’t know our material or perceive the task to be difficult, then fear of failure will cause us to go more slowly or make more mistakes.

This means that knowing your material and being as fully in control of your process as possible is key to avoiding stage fright. If you know your material well, if you’ve made sure that – for example – you’ve got your presentation slides stored in a number of locations, that you have the right cables to attach your laptop to the venue projector, that your slide remote has fresh batteries, that you’ve chosen your outfit ahead of time… If you’ve controlled as many variables as possible, then you’re far more likely to perceive the task as easier. This means that you’ll also find it easier to keep a focus on the process of performing and presenting, not on the audience.

FM Alexander puts it like this:

the individual comes to rely upon his “means-whereby,” and does not become disturbed by wondering whether the activities concerned will be right or wrong. Why should he, seeing that the confidence with which he proceeds with his task is a confidence born of experiences, the majority of which are successful experiences unassociated with over-excited fear reflexes? [4]

So be prepared, accept your inexperience, and have a great time.

[1] Kiyosaki, R., If You Want to be Rich and Happy, Don’t go to School, Fairfield, Aslan, 1993.
[2] Alexander, FM, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.283.
[3] Alter, A., Drunk Tank Pink, London, Oneworld, 2013, p.92.
[4] Alexander, FM, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.342.

Image: Liveoncelivewild [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

One simple tip to help you appear more confident onstage

Yes, I know: it’s a clickbait title. But in this post I really do want to give you one simple tip to help you appear more confident onstage! Looking confident in front of people often comes up in my classes or workshops. It came up just last week, in fact, when I was working with some teachers here in Bristol. Even people who have a lot of experience being in front of a crowd – like teachers or performers – sometimes feel that they struggle with confidence, and want to have a greater air of authority in front of their particular audience group.

If you want to project a greater sense of authority and presence to your audience, I have one question for you. What are you doing with your head as you breathe in to speak?

The three harmful tendencies

When he wanted to investigate the cause of his vocal hoarseness, FM Alexander looked in the mirror, and saw that he did three things when he began to recite: he pulled back his head; depressed his larynx; and he sucked in breath. What is more, he noticed that he did exactly the same three things preparatory to speaking normally – each movement was a little smaller.

Reasoning that these movements were harmful and contributing to his vocal problems, Alexander tried to prevent them. He discovered

…that when I succeeded in preventing the pulling back of the head, this tended indirectly to check the sucking in of breath and the depressing of the larynx … as I gradually gained experience in this prevention, my liability to hoarseness tended to decrease. [1]

Alexander found that pulling back his head as he went to speak made a clear contribution to his vocal troubles. The question I want to ask you is: do you do the same thing?

Opening the mouth vs opening the head

In my experience as an Alexander Technique teacher, there are two different strategies people use to breathe in and speak. The minority leave their skull still, and drop their jaw to breathe. 

Picture: Dropping your jaw to breathe and speak will help you appear more confident onstage

The others choose the more inventive strategy of leaving their jaw still and opening their head. That is to say, they pull their head back away from their lower jaw.

Picture of a head being thrust away from a still jaw, which does little to make you look confident onstage!

This has knock-on effects all the way down the spine, making a negative impact upon the whole breathing mechanism. More interesting for today, though, is the effect that it has upon the way a person appears to an audience.

Appear more confident onstage

If you pull your head back and leave your lower jaw still in order to speak, your eyeline changes – you will be looking down at people. Even more interestingly, your back and chest will now need to work a little harder than normal to keep your body balanced after you’ve thrown your skull backwards, so you’ll have turned on muscles that lock up your chest and your ribs. This will cause you to look ‘tight’, and your voice will seem thinner with the decrease in resonance. You may also have needed to raise your shoulders to try and manoevour air into the upper part of your lungs, as the lower portion will be impeded by the muscle tightness. In short, you’re likely to look nervy, or as my acting students would say, ‘lower status’.

Participants in my voice and presentation skills workshops typically report that when  they see a participant volunteer speak by just allowing their jaw to move downwards, they see a positive change. They report seeing someone who is more confident and self-assured; a speaker who is more engaged with their audience; a speaker who can be heard more clearly. Remarkably, a small change in what a person does with their head in relation with their body can make or break an impression of being confident onstage.

It’s worth noting that the speaker might still FEEL nervous. They may not feel the confidence that the others report seeing. But that’s okay. It’s normal to feel nervous;  but no speaker wants their nerves to impact negatively upon their impression to their audience. 

Being or feeling confident can come along later with experience and practice. For now, it is enough to appear confident onstage. And to do that, you can begin not by thinking about confidence directly, but by approaching it sideways – by thinking about just opening your jaw when you start to speak.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, pp.27-8.

Change to a more constructive performance mindset with one word

Different coloured brains to visualise changing to a more constructive performance mindset.

Can you change from a destructive performance mindset to something more beneficial with just a single word? Is it too good to be true? Put bluntly: is Jen indulging in click bait headlines?

Actually, I’m not. I firmly believe that it is possible to change your mode of thinking away from a performance mindset that is destructive using just one little word. But before I tell you what it is, I want to give a little background on why it works.

Psychophysical unity and performance mindset

Because we are a psychophysical unity, we enact the ideas that we have about ourselves and our abilities physically. And sometimes we may have no real notion of how far the implications of our belief mind extend, until we examine the end result of one of our ideas. FM Alexander gives the example of a student who had made the decision to avoid disagreeable sensations from activities by engaging her mind with pleasant thoughts. Put simply, she avoided putting her whole mind towards anything difficult or taxing, and instead did something akin to daydreaming to avoid any sensation of discomfort. The same student then wondered why it was that she had starting to find it difficult to keep her mind engaged while reading.

I showed her how she had been cultivating a most harmful mental condition, which made concentration on those duties of life which pleased her appear as a necessity. She had been constructing a secret chamber in her mind, as harmful to her general well-being as an undiagnosed tumour might have been to her physical welfare. [1]

Words matter

So the ideas that we have about what we do can have far-reaching consequences. And so often, our ideas can be negative; psychotherapist Philippa Perry in her book How to Stay Sane describes our internal dialogue as being to some degree “toxic chatter” that is loaded with 

hateful thoughts about ourselves and others; unconstructive self-scoldings; pointless pessimism. [2] 

Most of the time we don’t notice the toxic thoughts, and they don’t have a massive impact upon what we are doing. But in a high-stakes situation or a high-stress environment – like a performance – our unhelpful thoughts are likely to have a disproportionate negative impact upon our psychophysical systems.

I see this every time an actor apologises before they run through an audition monologue in class, or a student says ‘I hope I get this right’ before they attempt getting out of a chair. They are getting their apologies in early before a poor performance. And why do they need to do this? Because they assume that a poor performance is likely to occur. They have envisioned it! That is to say, they have constructed for themselves a performance mindset that is highly likely to result in poor performance.

One word that changes everything

The word that changes everything is one I learned in my university theatre training: the word if. Theatre director and acting system creator Constantin Stanislavski used the word ‘if’ as a foundational part of his acting system because it lifted his actors out of actuality and “I to the realm of imagination”:

With this special quality of if … nobody obliged you to believe or not believe anything. Everything is clear, honest and above-board. You are given a question, and you are expected to answer it sincerely and definitely. [3]

Recently I was working with a violinist, who was struggling in the preparations for an upcoming performance. When the person played for me, their intonation was off, their vibrato uncertain. I asked the violinist what they thought of themselves as a musician. “Well, I don’t think I’m any good,” the violinist replied. 

This made me feel very sad. I decided to call on my theatre training and invoke the power of if. I told the violinist I wasn’t going to try to change their belief, but just to ask them to play a little game with me. They agreed, so I continued. “What would it be like,” I asked, “if you really were a good player?”

The violinist’s eyes sparkled, and they played again. It sounded completely different: good intonation, clear tone, strong and appropriate vibrato. It was the clearest example I have ever seen of how just one little word can completely change a person’s mindset, by allowing them to play with thinking differently.

Over to you

Is there something that you believe that isn’t helping you? Do you have a performance mindset that you know holds you back when you go to play or present? Don’t bother trying to believe something different – that sounds like a lot of work and too much stress when you’re close to performance time. Instead, why not harness the power of your imagination? What would it be like if you were confident/capable/great at presenting/totally in control of your material? Imagine what that would be like, and then go out and play. If nothing else, you’ll have given yourself a moment of relaxation instead of stress just before your gig. But you may well surprise yourself with the power of that one little word.

Give it a try.

[1] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, New York, Irdeat, 1997, p.67.

[2] Perry, P., How to Stay Sane, London, Macmillan, 2012, p.26.

[3] Stanislavski, C., An Actor Prepares, trans. E.R. Hapgood, London, Methoden, 1988, pp. 46-47. Author’s italics.