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On a Tightrope: 5 Signs You Suffer from "Hidden" Stage Fright

Do you suffer from "hidden" stage fright?

Before you answer, consider the sheer size of the problem:

In the United States, between 70 and 75 percent of people report some level of public speaking fear.[1] As of the last official census on April 1, 2010, the population of the United States was 308,745,538.[2]  Even if only one out of every ten speech fright sufferers experiences truly serious anxiety, that adds up to nearly 22,000,000 Americans with this problem. (To become a more relaxed and focused speaker, download my free cheat sheet, "How to Calm Your Nerves Before Speaking.")

That's twenty-two million.

And then there's the rest of the world.

For many of these presenters, fear of public speaking announces itself with an obvious level of anxiety concerning performance. But what about the rest of the world's speakers? Are there people who aren't particularly aware of having speaking fear, but who react to stressful speaking situations in ways that inhibit their success?

I believe the answer to that question is yes.

Are you one of them? If you are, it would defintely be worth your while to find ways to lessen your (low-level) anxiety to improve your satisfaction along with your performance. Here are 5 signs that hidden stage fright may be an unwelcome participant when you perform in speeches, presentations, meetings, or social gatherings:

1. You experience more than normal nervousness. Just how many butterflies does it take to tip you from normal jitters into "more than normal" territory? Nervousness that announces itself but includes a pleasurable sense of anticipation, is the kind that will probably lead to a successful performance. If you get psyched up for the big game and become excited about it, your level of activation is probably healthy. But if you experience a knawing sensation in your stomach, or nerves that arrive accompanied by self-doubt, you're probably suffering from true stage fright that's hurting you more than helping you.

2. You're preoccupied prior to a speech or presentation. Effective speaking requires total focus. Your goal in speaking to this audience must be foremost in your mind: before you speak, while delivering your presentation, and in the Q & A afterwards. You can be nervous, and fairly boiling over with anticipation. But your mind can't be pulled off the prize but something else that's bothering you. Whether it's closely related to your speaking topic or far afield, such preoccupation is a sign that your mind wants to get off the subject of your talk. For some reason, you would rather think about that "other thing" than your upcoming performance. Most likely, your response is due to stage fright.

3. You lose focus while presenting. You may have remained focused from the preparation stages right up to the last minute. When you take center stage, however, something happens. A thought, an observation, a technical glitch, a last-minute complication—any of these things may fracture that all-important focus. When you're hitting on all cylinders and enjoying what's taking place between you and your listeners, nothing will knock you off the beam. If a minor breeze like one of these problems sends you tumbling through the air, however, something is undermining your self-confidence. And the chances are good that it wasn't very strong in the first place. For more on this, here are 3 great techniques for avoiding loss of focus when you speak.

4. You're concerned with how the audience is judging you. Are you secure in your topic knowledge and presentation skills? Do you have not only a desire but a passion for sharing information with audiences? And do you love it while it's happening? If your answer to these questions is yes, your speech or presentation will probably be enjoyable for all concerned. Audiences rarely attend a talk because they're forced to. They sincerely want the information you're giving them. They're not in attendance to judge you. If you think that's what is happening, you may be generally uncomfortable performing. Here are 3 ways to tailor your content to your audience to succeed.

5. You're more concerned with performance than communication. Did you ever think that delivering a presentation is just one more "performance" of those you give day in and day out? You're always coming up with both a response and a persona that works with the people and the situation around you. So you shouldn't place too much weight on your own shoulders where a speech is concerned.  In the end, public speaking is a simply an opportunity to communicate. Thinking that you have to give an extraordinary performance can be a sign that you don't trust your communication abilities.

What should you do if you find that you have any of the signs of "hidden" stage fright discussed above? First, remind yourself of why you speak: What is it about your field that interested you in the first place; and why do you want to share it with others? Second, find a class in acting or improv, or locate a top-notch speech coach. Either will help you be more comfortable and dynamic when you stand in front of others, so you take the stage with a thrill rather than a shiver of fear.


[1] Karen Kangas Dwyer, Conquer Your Speechfright (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1998), 3-12, citing McCroskey, 1993; and Richmond & McCroskey, 1995.

[2] Accessed March 2, 2011.

Key takeaways from this blog:

  • You don't have to suffer from full-blown speaking fear to have a problem.
  • Stage fright can be subtle but undermine your speaking success.
  • If you're excessively nervous or preoccupied, you may have stage fright.
  • Loss of focus while presenting may also be due to underlying fear.
  • Being concerned with your performance may mean you don't trust your abilities.


Fearless Speaking by Gary Genard 
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