Joan was a campaign manager for a local congressman. As part of her work she often had to make public presentations to groups of various sizes. Even though she was able to do this, she always suffered considerable discomfort As soon as she stood up to speak, she got tense, her throat constricted, and her voice became higher and more shrill. She said she felt “disconnected” from the people she was speaking to. However, she enjoyed talking with small groups after the presentation: “Then I feel connected to them as individuals, and it’s easy to respond to them; I really like that part of my job.”

How Joan’s Thinking Created Stage Fright

When I asked her if she had any idea how she created her tightness and discomfort, she said “No.” Since the information I wanted from her was “unconscious,” I asked her to imagine being back in the problem situation to see what she could discover:

“Think of one of the situations when this happened, and go back into it before you stand up to speak. See what you saw then, feel the chair under you, and hear the sounds around you there. Nod when you’re fully back there.”…

When she nodded, I went on: “Now imagine that you stand up and walk to the front of the room where you will speak. As you do this, notice what you experience that creates the tension.”

As she did this, I could see her shoulders rise as her chest became tense. When she spoke, her voice was indeed higher and shriller, so I knew that she was actually re-experiencing the problem situation. When she reported on her experience, she described her feelings of tension and discomfort in detail, but she still had no idea how she created it. She needed a little more help from me.

“Close your eyes and go back again to that situation of being in front of the group. As you stand there, notice any words you might be saying to yourself in your mind, or any pictures you might be making internally. . . . Try looking out at the group and notice if there is anything unusual about the people’s eyes or their faces.” Since I have worked with stage fright before, I know that often it occurs in response to imagining being watched, judged, or rejected by the audience, and this is usually most evident in how we see the eyes or faces of the audience.

After a few moments, Joan’s body jerked slightly and she said, “Oh! They all have cartoon eyes! All those empty eyes are staring at me without any expression!”

If you imagine being Joan, looking out at a room full of life-size cartoon eyes, it’s easy to realize how this would make her feel tense and “disconnected” from the group! Now that I knew how she created the problem, the next step was to change it to something more useful.

Creating Comfort

“As you’re standing in front of that group, look past the cartoon eyes to see the real eyes of the people you’re looking at. Start with one person, and when you can see his real eyes, let your eyes move on to another face and see her eyes. Continue to make eye contact with all the people in the group at your own speed, and then tell me how that changes your experience.”

how to overcome stage fright

As Joan did this, her shoulders and chest relaxed considerably, and she began to smile slightly. After about a half-minute she spoke in a voice that was almost as low as her normal voice: “It’s much better now. I can see the people out there, and I’m more relaxed. But I still feel disconnected from them.”

When I asked how she created this remaining feeling of disconnection, she said slowly and thoughtfully, “It has something to do with being higher than them. Even if I’m not on a stage, I’m always standing up and they’re sitting down, so I’m still higher than they are. I don’t like looking down at people. We can’t meet eye-to-eye.”

Since in the future she will actually be standing up, higher than the people she speaks to, I needed to find a way for her to feel as if she’s communicating eye-to-eye, even when there is a physical difference in height. A first step in this direction is to convince her that this is possible.

“Joan, have you ever been at a presentation in which you felt as if the speaker was talking directly to you, person-to-person, even though he or she was speaking from a higher platform?”

Joan said thoughtfully, “Yes, I have.”

“Good, so you do know it’s possible. I want you to close your eyes, and go back to that presentation. Notice what that speaker does to establish that person-to-person rapport, even though he’s physically at a different level.”

After a few moments, Joan opened her eyes, smiled, and said, “He looked out into the audience and smiled, and some people smiled back. . . . Whenever I’ve presented I’ve been scared, and my face has been too tense and tight to feel like smiling.”

“OK. Now that you feel more comfortable being in front of the group, you could easily smile at the people, right? Let’s try it out. Close your eyes and imagine that you are walking up to begin your presentation. Before you begin, try smiling out at the group and notice who smiles back. Some will, and some won’t; but either way it will be the beginning of your person-to- person interaction with the group.”

After a few moments Joan smiled broadly and said, “That works. Some of them smiled back and that makes me feel connected with them. How could it be so simple?” The important thing was not just having Joan smile, but finding something that made Joan feel the person-to-person connection she wanted.

This session with Joan took about fifteen minutes. A few weeks later, Joan reported that in recent presentations she had felt relaxed, comfortable, and connected with the group.

Other Ways to Have Stage Fright

Few people will create their stage fright in exactly the same way Joan did, but they will do something internally that results in their discomfort. Some people will imagine not being able to speak at all; others may worry that the entire group will soon begin to snicker and get up to leave. Still others will remember a time in their past when they were humiliated by being ill-prepared for a presentation.

As soon as you understand how this person creates his problem, his response always makes perfect sense. Our responses aren’t random; they are simply the consequences of how our minds work. It doesn’t really matter exactly what each of us does to create a problem. As soon as you know what you do, you can begin to experiment with changing it to something more useful.

In the case of Joan, we directly changed elements of her internal experience. You can accomplish the same outcome by noticing what a person presupposes, and use purely verbal interventions to change how that person thinks, as in the following example.

Betty’s Stage Fright

Betty also wanted to get over her stage fright. “I want to be comfortable in giving a seminar or presentation,” she requested.

“So what has stopped you from just automatically being comfortable when you do a presentation?” I asked.

“Well, they know more than I do.”

“They know more than you do?” I repeated. “How do you know so much that you know this?” I asked with a smile. Here I attempted to use Betty’s own way of thinking to get her to recognize that her complaint actually results from her own knowledge, not the knowledge of others. But Betty’s experience did not change.

“I don’t.” she responded.

“So you imagine that they know more than you do,” I said. Now Betty was faced with an interesting dilemma. Either she can accept that she knew enough to know what others were thinking, or she can admit that she didn’t know that much about the other’s knowledge. In either case, her assumption that others know more than she does is likely to become a bit less real.

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“Right. And everything has been said before, and presented before.” Betty added.

“Oh. So are you one of these people that if you were an author, you wouldn’t write a book because all the words in our language have already been used?” This metaphoric question takes her statement to an extreme in a context in which it is clearly absurd.

“Yes.” Betty responded with a smile, amused, and not taking it quite so seriously.

“Is that a fact. Well, what makes you even want to make a presentation, if everything has been said before and everybody knows more than you? Why would you even want to bother?” Here I’m exploring the apparent contradiction between her motivation to present, and her assumption that “it’s all been done before,” so there’s no point in presenting.

“That’s a good question,” said Betty, thoughtfully. “Well, I’m finding out now that I can say something in my way, and that other people can learn a different perspective even though it has been said before.”

“So you have already come to the realization that sometimes seeing something in a different way gets a useful response from the listener. So you know that. Is there anything else that makes you want to do a presentation?”

“If I develop a passion for the material, then it shouldn’t matter at all, because when I have that passion and that conviction inside—”

“Then what shouldn’t matter at all?”

“That they know more and that everything has been said before. Because then I would have fun doing it, and I would feel comfortable.”

Betty now had a conscious idea of what it could be like when she didn’t have stage fright, but she clearly was not actually experiencing it yet. She was telling me how things would be, not how they are, so I knew I needed to go further.

“That sounds good to me. Now when you think about any audience in particular, what do they know less about than you?” Betty usually only thought about what others knew that she didn’t. This asks Betty to think of when the opposite is true—when she knows more than the audience—to loosen up her thinking.

Betty thought for a few moments. “They know everything more,” she laughed, clearly not completely believing what she was saying.

“EVERYTHING?” I teased her. “Look, if you are so good at imagining that others know so much, you ought to be just as good at imagining ways in which you know more than they do.”

“Right, OK.” Betty got serious. “I will come up with an answer. . . . What I have found is that a lot of people know less about their existence in terms of their worthwhileness and their self-esteem and self-concept.” Betty’s voice sounded hesitant, not completely convinced.

how to beat stage fright

“So that is an area that you know more about than a lot of other people do. I noticed a little bit of hesitation as you said t h a t . . . . I don’t know if you already realize that for each person there are always areas in which you know more than they do, as well as areas in which they know more than you do”

I was making slow progress in loosening her all-or-none thinking, so I decided to try a different approach. “Now let me ask you something different. Do you think that the people who come to your group would be so stupid as to pick a presentation where they didn’t think that they would learn something?” Rather than continuing to try to change Betty’s belief that others know so much, now I was utilizing this belief to counter her stage fright.

Betty laughed, and I saw a strong physiological response. Color came into her face, and her muscles became a bit more smooth and supple—calm, yet livelier. This kind of physical shift is usually good evidence that a deep change in attitude has occurred—in contrast to an intellectual understanding. “Good point! Thank you. Thanks. That just pulls everything together,” Betty stated with confidence and satisfaction. “I think I’ll keep that one.”

This brief interaction with Betty, which took about ten minutes, gave her a new way to think about giving presentations. It’s important to recognize that this interaction was not a matter of my convincing or advising her that she was wrong and should think about things differently. I was able to enter Betty’s own world and point out a way in which her own logic and beliefs provided her with a solution.

Betty’s firm belief that “others are so smart” offered me a basis for changing her thinking about presenting. Since others were so smart, they must have the ability to decide whether they could learn something from Betty, and she could feel more comfortable about presenting. The only alternative is for Betty to change her mind about others being so smart, which would also lead to her feeling more comfortable about doing presentations!

This provides an example of one way to take an alternative point of view, so that someone has the opportunity to think about her own life in a way that makes her automatically feel good and resourceful. After this brief work with Betty, she felt very differently about giving a presentation— eager and self-assured, rather than uncomfortable and ambivalent. Her positive feelings were not a matter of effort they were just there for her—as automatic as her previous response of discomfort had been.

I also want to point out that the new perspective I offered Betty was not “false confidence” that would blind her to her inadequacies. If I had gotten Betty to feel confident no matter who was in her group, she might have learned to just ignore the background and responses of the audience.

Instead, the perspective I offered her is one that I have when I teach. I assume that everyone in the room knows more than I do about something. Some people, some of the time, are even going to know more about what I am teaching than I do. That’s inevitable, and it’s also an opportunity for me to learn from them, which will benefit others the next time I teach. However, I also trust people’s intelligence enough to select whether they want to be learning from me or not. I can have confidence in the judgement of the people who have decided they want to learn something from/ with me and come to seminars.

One of the surprises for us as we have steeped ourselves in learning,using, and further developing NLP, is that the personal changes we make are usually fairly quick, as with Betty. This doesn’t mean we can all completely transform ourselves in ten minutes. Sometimes it takes us much longer just to gather the information to find out what to do. Although for Betty only one change made the difference, sometimes a person needs two changes in belief or perspective, or five, or twenty, to get the desired overall change.