A stutterer’s guide to overcoming stage fright on Zoom
My road to becoming a communications expert was marked by early years as a stutterer. The reason was fear of public speaking.
Stuttering is a speech disorder experienced by one percent of the world’s population. I am one of those people. And I am in good company: Joe Biden, Nicole Kidman, Bruce Willis, and Samuel L. Jackson all had a stutter.
From childhood to my mid-20’s, speaking for me was fraught with risky stumbles, repeated sounds and word switching. Sometimes my tongue and lips would spasm and no sound would come out. Words would get stuck in my throat. It was a debilitating, embarrassing and frustrating.
I was determined to overcome my stammer and sought professional help. My career required me to do public speaking and media interviews. I persevered and became a successful communicator.
The underlying cause of my speech disorder was diagnosed as high anxiety and fear of failure. In other words, stage fright. It is also known clinically as glossophobia.
I share my story because I have flashbacks observing performance anxiety in people who ask me to train them to feel more confident on video meetings. Individuals unaccustomed to speaking in public now find themselves in front of a webcam sharing a screen with dozens of other people. Stage fright is one reason some people never turn on their videos.
Stuttered speech is just one manifestation of performance anxiety. Among the most common are excessive sweating, trembling, jittery stomach, and dry mouth.
Here are seven tips to help speakers overcome stage fright:
Taking a long and deep inhale and exhale will calm your nerves in most situations. Deep breathing can lower blood pressure and deliver more oxygen to your brain. Become aware of your heart racing and shallow breathing. Stop and breathe into the nervousness. When you are nervous, your heart will race, and your breathing will be shallower. You will likely run out of air mid-sentence. Plus, nervous people tend to speak more quickly. Slow down your rate of speech. Breathe in and out to the count of 8 before it is your turn to speak.
Take more deliberate pauses. This has the double benefit of reining in your tendency to chatter away when nervous, plus making your words and phrases more intelligible on video calls. Pausing also gives you a few seconds to collect your thoughts and take a quick temperature check of your audience. If they are distracted or multitasking, the pause will bring their attention back to you.
Dry mouth and a tight throat are common, even for experienced speakers. Tense speakers may experience coughing and hoarseness on top of cotton mouth. Drink plenty of water before you speak, and sips of room temperature water throughout your talk. Avoid carbonated beverages that could make you burp.
Positive nervousness activates the adrenalin supply, which can be a good thing. It makes your eyes shine and can put sizzle into your delivery. The goal is to turn the nervousness into energy. If you are feeling “butterflies in your stomach,” the trick is to get them to ”fly in formation.” That is, use the energy boost to make your presentation compelling and convincing.
I know–looking at a webcam lens is impersonal and tiring. As much as we would like to replicate in person contact, virtual limits our interactions to the confines of a rectangle on a screen. Think of the lens as a pair of eyes. Visualize the face of a loved one, your pet, an action hero or cartoon character who makes you smile. Tape an image or illustration to the back of the webcam to keep you focused and less self-conscious.
6. Be human.
Everyone, I mean everyone has suffered from glossophobia—performance anxiety—at some point in their lives. Some people never overcome it. Sir Paul McCartney has revealed that stage fright nearly ended his Beatles career early. Eddie Van Halen, Cher, and Carly Simon suffered debilitating panic attacks before a show. Adele has admitted that she “projectile vomited on someone” once due to her anxiety about performing. So, when you are feeling terrified of turning on your camera or speaking up during a videoconference, remember you are not alone. It is part of being human.
The late Ron Hoff, in his seminal book on overcoming fear of public speaking, “I Can See You Naked,” urged speakers to fill their heads with at least seven times more information than they will need to use. This means less reading, more confident speaking, and more natural delivery. Practice is essential to overcoming fear of public speaking. That is why Toastmasters, at close to century old, continues to promote the practice of effective public speaking worldwide.
For virtual meetings, practice includes knowing your equipment and your online platform of choice. Whether you use Zoom, Microsoft Teams, GotoMeeting, BlueJeans, or Google Meet, take the time to learn the platform’s user interface. The more stress you take off your shoulders before a video call the more relaxed and comfortable you will be when it is your turn to shine.
Remember that the fundamentals of becoming a confident speaker in the virtual world will only serve to strengthen your abilities in the physical world. This is a good time to invest in refining your online presence and prepare for the next normal.
How well do you show up on Zoom? Take my ZoomScore™ quiz and see how you rank.
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