Send in the Crowds
If the spotlight terrifies you, take heart. There's a way to face your fear.
Giving A Brief Talk to 15 friendly members of a Las Vegas lunchtime club should have been a cinch for real estate ace Bill Anderson. Like every salesperson who's ever persuaded anybody to sign on the dotted line, he earned his living by talking.
But as Anderson knows all too well, there's a big difference between chatting with a homebuyer and standing up in front of a group. Throughout his career, he'd handled the one-on-one situations just fine, but if he found himself facing a crowd - even a small, congenial one - Anderson came unglued. "Whenever I had to give a speech, the blood would rush to my head and I would feel like I was going to black out," he says.
In college, Anderson had tried to subdue his fears by signing up for a speech course. "When I stood up in front of everybody, I just couldn't put my words together," he says. "I felt like such a failure that I dropped out of school." From then on, Anderson avoided audiences the way someone with vertigo avoids cliffs. "With three or four people I was okay," he says, "but after that I got wheezy."
Then one day a sympathetic colleague insisted on taking Anderson to a local meeting of the Toastmasters. Organized into some 10,000 chapters nationwide, this club brings together people interested in helping each other polish their oratorical and leadership skills. Many folks also attend in hopes of shooing away a bad case of the butterflies. Just the remedy Anderson needed, the coworker figured. Anderson didn't see it that way. "I had to be dragged there," he says. "I knew I couldn't talk in front of an audience."
As part of the day's program, every participant had to give an impromptu one-minute speech, and just to make things interesting, each speaker was required to remain standing until the minute had fully elapsed, even if the talk ran short.
"When my turn came," Anderson says, "the blood rushed to my head and I thought, 'You idiot. What the hell are you even doing here?' I sort of blacked out to where I couldn't even see the audience. I just got speechless. Finally I heard the timekeeper clank on his water glass, and I said 'Thank you,' and sat down. That was the shortest speech they'd ever heard.
"At the end of the meeting," Anderson says, "I felt like I wanted to cut open the carpet, crawl inside, and slide out of the room."
Performance anxiety is what the psychologists call it, and it's painfully common. In a national survey in which Americans were asked to cite their greatest fears, speaking before a group came in first. Death placed seventh.
"I've had students in class get up to give their first speech and literally run out the door and never come back," says Mike Allen, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. "Everybody who's taught public speaking can give you stories like that."
Peter Desberg, a Los Angeles psychologist who specializes in stage fright, tells of one patient, an attorney, so nervous about appearing in court that he fast-talked his law partners into taking on his trial work for ten straight years - without ever letting on the real reason he couldn't face the courtroom.
Even those who perform for a living can crumple in the spotlight. Singer Carly Simon has had a well-publicized struggle. And famed cellist Pablo Casals on occasion had to be physically pushed onto the stage. So debilitating was his fear that when a rock fell on Casals's hand during a hike, he announced with great relief, "Thank God, I'll never have to play the cello again." (Fortunately - at least for his audiences - he recovered.) Actor Laurence Olivier suffered such a bad case of anxiety that he forbade other members of the cast to look him in the eye while he was acting.
Pick any four people, researchers say, and these are the odds: Two of the four will feel at least an occasional flutter of stage fright before a speech. The third will suffer nervousness that could be called bothersome but not debilitating. And the fourth person will be so fearful that he or she will avoid meetings, drop classes, refuse promotions, or change jobs to escape confronting an audience. For fully a quarter of us, then, the emotional and physiological agony of stage fright can cause us to self-destruct when facing even the most benign crowd.
Garry Cosnett remembers the feeling all too well. "The first part of my struggle was to stop myself from shaking, and if I could get the shaking stopped, then I'd perspire profusely," recalls the Baltimore-based speaking consultant. "It was more than beads of sweat; I had sweat pouring off me.
"A lot of people thought the movie Broadcast News with Albert Brooks was the funniest thing they'd ever seen," says Cosnett. "To me, Brooks's sweating scene was a horrible recollection of the kind of experience I once had."
Stage fright begins when the mind, for whatever reason, perceives a situation - say, a roomful of gawking people - as threatening. The body responds to the "get-me-out-of-here" feeling by releasing adrenaline-related chemicals that gear it up for action or escape.
Within bounds, the energized sensation can put pep into a performance. Actors and musicians, in fact, will often say that without a few butterflies, an appearance can fall flat. "Feeling apprehensive before a performance is both normal and helpful," says Jerilyn Ross, a psychotherapist and the president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. "It can motivate us to prepare well, get our energy going, and make us come across as vibrant and enthusiastic."
But when anxiety is too intense, it can set up a circuitry of fear that can disrupt one's performance faster than a heckler in the front row. "You start to say to yourself, 'Hey, this speech must really be a big deal, or my heart wouldn't be pounding like this,' " says psychologist Desberg. Suddenly you're caught in a vicious mind-body loop that leads straight to stage-fright hell: Rapid, shallow breathing makes your voice sound thin and quivering. The sweat trickling off your face becomes a torrent, while your mouth dries up to cotton. Increased muscle tension sets your hands and legs to trembling. Your heartbeat can skyrocket to 170 beats per minute - more than 100 beats above the resting rate. Before you know it, what started out as mild apprehension has mushroomed into incapacitating terror.
It hit Tim Hopf during his graduate school oral exam at Pennsylvania State University. "I started hyperventilating with these quick, shallow breaths," says Hopf. "My mind wouldn't function, and the answers just weren't there. After forty-five minutes, I was so terrified that a piece of me just seemed to split away and watch what was going on from another part of the room. I was totally frozen."
Losing one's cool before a graduate school committee is ordeal enough, but this past year in Columbus, Ohio, classical music singer Cynthia Mahaney nearly fainted in front of an audience of 300 rapt listeners. "I started getting dizzy and had to stop singing and hold onto the chair in front of me," she says. By concentrating hard on the music, Mahaney managed to remain vertical and get through.
Mel Hodges' wasn't so lucky. An East Coast addictions counselor, Hodges was recently promoted to an administrative job that requires him to give occasional speeches. During one talk, Hodges's anxiety became so overwhelming that he passed out in full view of the audience. The fact that he was an addictions counselor left the stunned spectators in a quandary: Was the speaker really unconscious, or did he crumple to the floor to make some point about substance abuse? Hodges eventually got to his feet, briefly left the stage to pull himself together, and bravely returned to finish his speech.
Sticking it out works for some people; others - TV weatherman Willard Scott, for instance - resort to more resourceful measures. Although anyone who'd dress up like Carmen Miranda to discuss the highs and lows of atmospheric pressure on national television might seem the antithesis of a stage-fright victim, Scott has in fact suffered for years.
He started having anxiety attacks in 1980, soon after he moved to a network morning show. At first, he eased his nerves before each weather segment by letting out karate-style yells off camera. But when the show's revamped format eliminated his opportunity to do this, he started to hyperventilate once he was on the air, and his heart pounded so hard that he was afraid he was having a heart attack. At the least he thought he might faint.
For a year, Scott tried a homemade remedy - sticking himself in the rump with a pin in hopes of shocking himself out of the anxiety. When the jabs failed, he thought drowning his stage fright with aspirin and water might help. All that did was make him run to the bathroom more often. Under a doctor's guidance, he now takes medication when the panic comes on strong. On better days, the psychological comfort of just holding a pill in his hand or licking half a tablet is enough to get him through the show. "You do what it takes," he says.
While a public figure with a fear of the public may sound as bizarre as an Olympic swimmer with a fear of the water, one study suggests that the percentage of professional performers with performance anxiety isn't much different from that of the population as a whole. According to a recent medical survey of more than 2,000 opera and symphony musicians, 24 percent claimed to be bothered by stage fright, and 16 percent characterized their anxiety as severe.
Even after years of acting, Laurence Olivier described the terror this way: "It creeps up and swamps you like a shadow, and just when you think you've conquered it, there it is sitting at the end of the bed grinning at you."
Olivier traced his fear to an episode as a youngster, when he tried to ham it up while singing the lead in the school choir, but suddenly felt so guilty about his conduct that he momentarily lost his voice.
Bill Anderson's troubles also echoed a childhood memory; at the age of five, he'd been given the role of walking out onto the stage to kick off a church play. He became so startled by the sight of the onlookers that he gasped and clapped his hands over his mouth. "Everybody laughed when I did that, and naturally I took it that they were criticizing me," he says. "I was just so embarrassed."'
As both traumatic events suggest, childhood attempts at performing and communicating can have a big effect on how well you're able to pull off a presentation as an adult. Family members can be one's first, and toughest, critics. "Parents who tell the child to shut up or who have the maxim 'Children should be seen and not heard' are giving their kids the message that if you talk, you're not a very beloved child, and if you don't talk, we like you better," says John Daly, a communications researcher at the University of Texas. Families that tease too much, or, worse, subject children to ridicule, can set the stage for lifelong debilitating fears.
But people outside the family can also have a lasting effect. "Imagine a child who at age six sings a song for show-and-tell and his teacher says, 'That's wonderful,' and the class applauds, as opposed to a child who sings and gets laughed at and snickered at by the kid who's the power broker in class," says Jerome Schnitt, a Yale University psychiatrist who treats performing artists. "They'll have totally different expectations of what's going to happen when they show off."
The gloomier those expectations, the more prone to nervousness - or worse - you're liable to be. "People with low levels of anxiety visualize an upcoming speech, go over it in their heads, and play out various scenarios," says Joseph Ayers, a researcher at Washington State University. "Through practice they see the speech getting better and better. Highly anxious people don't do that. They worry about how terrible it will be and how much people aren't going to like them."
"People with stage fright have this all-or-nothing way of thinking," says Susan Raeburn, a psychologist with the University of California at San Francisco Health Program for the Performing Arts. "'If I'm not perfect, I've totally blown it,' they think. That pressure cranks your anxiety way up because if you seem a little nervous on stage, instead of realizing that you're human and that other people will be nice and understanding, you're thinking, 'I'm worthless if I'm not perfect.' "
Anticipating the worst was no doubt a big part of Tim Hopf's problem when he faced the grad school professors at Penn State. "In my mind I was thinking, 'I'm probably going to make an ass out of myself, and these people are going to see me as incompetent and stupid,' " he says.
A feeling of failure was also circulating through Bill Anderson's mind well before his minimalist performance at Toastmasters. Afterward, that feeling was just more reinforced than ever. The only way to prevent a humiliating repeat, he figured, was never to return to the club.
That well-meaning colleague, however, wouldn't let Anderson bail out so easily, and drove him to the next meeting. Anderson grudgingly attended, but for three months he refused to do anything but observe. "It turned out to be therapy for me to watch the other members speak, because I realized they weren't professionals up there, either," he says. "I didn't feel so alone. They made goofs, so I felt I could make goofs without feeling bad."
Anderson eventually found the courage to give a few speeches of his own. It took him about a year to get comfortable in front of the group, he says, but since then he's gone on to become president of the Las Vegas Toastmasters, taught public speaking to young people, and moved up to general manager of a large realty firm, where he leads a 40-person sales meeting every week.
"It's a job I never would have taken fifteen years ago," Anderson says. "No way. But now, I even work in a little presentation at every meeting because I enjoy doing it so much."
And that's the good news about stage fright. With some help (see "Chasing Away the Butterflies"), the show can go on. The bad news is that the fear may intensify if you leave it alone. "I've never worked with a person who didn't improve," says Desberg. "It's an issue of how hard they were willing to work, and where the problem started, and how intense it was."
Tim Hopf, who went on to become an associate professor of communications at Washington State University in Pullman, says he still feels anxious and dry-mouthed and his heart rate still climbs during a lecture, but he's learned a few tricks. "I realized that my script was a negative script," he says, "and I was the only one who could rewrite it."
By visualizing himself carrying out a successful speech before he ever gets up to give one, Hopf now keeps the anxiety within manageable limits and makes it through his presentations. He also teaches the technique to students in his classes, comparing it to the positive visualization that athletes use before a competition.
Singer Cynthia Mahaney says she's learned to shift her attention more firmly onto the music and away from her nervousness, a practice that's made her feel a lot steadier on her feet. That and holding on tight to the piano whenever she sings solo.
"You know how some singers put their hand on the piano?" Mahaney says. "Well, I do it so I won't fall over."
Strangely enough, says Mel Hodges, fainting on stage convinced him he could persevere through even the most humiliating public catastrophe. He's felt a bit more confident ever since.
Willard Scott still suffers from stage fright, though his audiences might never guess it. Obviously, it hasn't kept him out of the camera's eye. "I make sure I know what my first line is going to be, even if it's something as simple as 'If you liked yesterday, you're going to love today,' " he says, "so it doesn't surprise me or anybody else when it comes out of my mouth.
"I might look silly or become short of breath, but I've learned to say 'Screw it," " says Scott. "It's just something I have to try to learn to live with. I'd rather have that than a heart condition."
Figuring Out What Kind of help you need depends on what degree of stage fright you have. If your lack of nerve stems from a simple lack of confidence about giving a speech, you might benefit from a public speaking class or coach. Plenty of places, including the Toastmasters, can teach you the ins and outs of working a crowd.
If your fears seem more debilitating, and you find yourself avoiding important events or botching opportunities because you're afraid, it's a good idea to consult a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other licensed counselor. Therapy can help you gain insight into the roots of your fear, and learn different ways of coping. One way to find a specialist with a background in treating performance anxiety is to obtain a list from:
Anxiety Disorders Association of America
6000 Executive Blvd.
Rockville, MD 20852.
Enclose $3 for postage and handling.
Here are some of the specific techniques specialists may use:
LEARN THE BASICS. They call it skills training, but essentially, it's the same thing as the Public Speaking 101 course you may have taken in school. This technique is based on the logic that you'll feel less scared about giving a speech if you become better at the mechanics. A teacher shows you how to plan and organize, come up with a snappy introduction and conclusion—the whole oratorical bit. Then you're coached on delivery. The best candidates for this approach are those who experience mild trepidation in front of a group but aren't totally paralyzed by the prospect.
CHANGE YOUR THINKING. Therapists who use the "cognitive modification" approach help you to examine, and ultimately to reject, the self-defeating expectations that stir up your stage fright. The goal is to replace irrational, destructive notions ("If my speech isn't good, this crowd is going to rip me limb from limb") with a more constructive, accurate perspective ("I'll just do the best I can, and chances are the audience will be sympathetic, or, at worst, bored").
TAKE IT A STEP AT A TIME. Just as new swimmers need to be gradually acclimated to the water, stage fright sufferers need to be eased onto the stage. Therapists who use the technique called systematic desensitization might start off by having you imagine yourself sitting in the audience and watching someone on stage. Then you might picture yourself observing from the edge of the stage, and, lastly, imagine yourself behind the podium and actually speaking.
As you move from one imagined experience to the next, you learn stress-reduction techniques such as deep-breathing and muscle-relaxation exercises to help calm you down in the face of fear.
Some therapists go a step further and expose clients to real performance situations, adding cognitive techniques to the mix to help people replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
THE WORKS. In studying the various methods, one group of researchers found that stage fright is most effectively reduced when all three approaches are called into play—a combination of skills training, cognitive modification, and systematic desensitization. When used alone, cognitive work and desensitization training had about twice the effect of skills training by itself.
"I don't think anybody is ever 'cured,' " says William Donohue, of Michigan State University at East Lansing, coauthor of the study. But most people respond enough to the combined method that they find themselves more at ease in the spotlight.
DRUGS. Many performers will tell you that the best hope is as close as the nearest musician's medicine cabinet. According to one study, 27 percent of professional symphony musicians have used a class of drugs known as beta-blockers to chase away fear. But before you accept medical advice from a bassoonist, you should know that beta-blockers are far from perfect. Because they target the physical symptoms, not the fright itself, they do nothing to help people who are racked by psychological terror, but show none of the physical signs.
But even if your knees do sound like castanets, that still doesn't mean you should be on beta-blockers. They can have some nasty side effects and should be taken only under a physician's supervision. Despite the risks, one study suggested that 70 percent of the professional musicians who use the drugs do so without a doctor's advice, instead mooching pills from friends.
To curb the mental terror of stage fright, physicians sometimes prescribe tranquilizers such as Valium and Xanax, which have a sedating effect on the brain and nervous system. Users must be cautious about overreliance on such drugs, however. And besides lowering anxiety levels, tranquilizers may also interfere with motor function and dull your senses at exactly the wrong time - while you're working your way through a tricky piano arpeggio, say, or convincing the courtroom that your client didn't do it.