The Art of Stage Presence (or, how to speak more betterrer)
I've spent three decades in the theater industry, performing for hundreds of thousands, collaborating with international dignitaries, and sharing the stage with a diverse range of performers—from clowns and members of the Blue Man Group to rock stars. This rich experience has provided me with firsthand insight into the immense power of cultivating a sense of presence on stage and has shed light on the common obstacles individuals face when attempting to 'show up' and shine.
I'd like to share some essential secrets and tips I employ with my clients to overcome stage fright and transform them into impactful, moving speakers. Although stage fright can feel crippling, it can be managed and even converted into a tool for success using simple techniques and information.
Confidence is often said to stem from self-acceptance and satisfaction. We're told we can only perform our best when we're feeling our best. But what happens on the days when we're required to deliver an outstanding performance? Even when we're not at our best. Can we still be effective speakers even when we're not brimming with confidence? How do we convert challenging moments into opportunities for growth? How do we overcome common fears associated with presenting ourselves in front of an audience, such as the ever-pervasive imposter syndrome–the nagging question that whispers, 'Who am I to stand up and teach others anything?'
The Evolution of Stage Fright
The roots of stage fright lie deep within our biological evolution. It's essential to understand that fear of public speaking is normal and deeply ingrained in our evolutionary history. As social creatures, we humans have evolved to exist harmoniously within group dynamics. Traditionally, our primeval ancestors only found themselves in the spotlight under two circumstances: either they were being ostracized (often a death sentence) or challenging the group's leadership (a potentially fatal endeavor). 1
Outliers get killed.
This explains why public speaking is often rated as more frightening than death itself in polls. We instinctively stick to the group for safety, and the inherited survival instincts from our ancestors trigger a fight or flight response in situations where we feel singled out. So, it's not your fault if the thought of stepping onto the stage paralyzes you. Merely understanding this foundational concept can be a major step toward overcoming your fear. In summary:
Stage fright is biological. Most fear stems from an ingrained, genetic-level trauma associated with separating from the group.
Biology is your friend. Realizing that you're grappling with ancestral experiences can profoundly shift your relationship with these feelings.
Adapting To The Witness Effect
As we adjust to this involuntary lack of poise that arises at the prospect of getting on stage, we must start to lower our expectations of ourselves and learn exactly what makes for engaging presentations. Because it turns out that less is more.
Picture this: an actor stands on stage, doing nothing—simply sitting, breathing, observing the world. You'd likely be captivated, finding it challenging to divert your gaze. This phenomenon might be familiar to you from a theater performance, a concert, or even watching a magician perform sleight of hand. These performers we observe are entirely present, and their investment in the moment draws us in. This total presence is, in fact, a fundamental component of charisma and essential to generating engaging presentations.2
So, what barriers exist in everyday life that prevent us from achieving this level of engagement? Why don't we fill our days with this heightened sensitivity to the present, rather than focusing on past or future possibilities? Is it truly that challenging, or is this why certain religions devote themselves to this practice? This brings us to a key concept: Presence.
What do we mean by presence?
It's a multi-perspectival mode of being. It's a simultaneous awareness of the entirety of our inner selves as well as the outer world. It implies an availability to the moment of NOW. Actors are trained to be hyper-aware of their environments, where they have to stand, how loud to speak and in what accent, how to move, think, and feel like their characters, and pretend as though all of the action on stage is brand new and happening for the first time.
When we learn to lean into and land in that expansive now, we become the most interesting thing in the room. If you want to try that right now, here's an exercise you can do anywhere, anytime:
Seated, begin by closing your eyes or taking a soft focus with a downward gaze.
Bring your full attention to the details of your breath: the cycle, where the air enters your body, where it seems to go, and how it leaves. Step consciously into that cycle and begin to direct it. It starts in the nose or mouth, travels to the lungs, and then. . .? Bring it into your belly, your hands, your legs, and feet. Breathe into your back.
When a thought or judgment creeps in as it inevitably will, let it pass through. Welcome the new thought, and invite it to keep traveling. Bring your attention back to only what is. The sensations of your skin, the feeling of gravity holding you into this position, the tension easing out of muscle and bone. It may sometimes make the process easier if you "gamify" the activity–how well, how detailed, and how nuanced can you make your attention?
When you're fully immersed in this practice, open your eyes and do the same thing with your immediate environment. Observe closely what you see, hear, and feel. Track, not only the details of what is external but also what sensations these observations create within your body. Emotional responses will certainly arise, but once they are present, what do we do with them? Acknowledge and move on. Track the quality of your attention. Notice when your own judgment arises. Track how it changes your attention and regard.
Great work. Savor the heightened and hopefully relaxed state of mind.
We're so accustomed to thinking outside the present moment that witnessing someone wholly in the moment naturally draws us in. Their presence creates a temporal oasis where we can pause and savor the beauty of life amidst the constant flow of time. For us as presenters, this translates into the understanding that we don't need to DO anything to engage our audience; we simply need to BE present.
As presenters, we're sought out because we possess valuable insights to share. You're already a presenter. You're an expert in your field, capable of discussing your work for hours. You've engaged in lengthy conversations on this topic, demonstrated your articulation skills, and proven your point countless times. This has always been easier one-on-one.
However, to refine our presenting skills, we must be willing to be seen. Being comfortable with visibility entails several critical realizations:
You cannot hide on stage–Be visible. This pearl of wisdom from the renowned theatre director Anne Bogart is vital. We must understand—and as seasoned audience members, we already do—that the audience sees everything. Letting go of illusions of being unnoticed or hidden on stage makes our presence stronger and more authentic. Remember, authenticity on stage, even amidst fear, is always engaging.
Nothing is as interesting as presence. Being present means sharing your attention—your most precious resource—with others. Presence is a gift (notice the language! *winks at John Vervaeke*). Think about the joy people feel when you ask about their lives. Giving a gift implies vulnerability (more on this in a future post).
Trust the audience. You are here to share your knowledge or expertise. Trust yourself. You ARE an expert. Take a moment to appreciate all the hard work you've accomplished that has led to this moment, no matter how small or large a crowd. The audience wants you to succeed. Trust that energy and show up as though you're at your own pep rally. Everyone trusts your opinion and is ready for everything you have to offer. Relax into the knowledge that the audience has your back.
Stage fright is a common phenomenon that many grapple with, but it needn't hold you back from becoming a compelling presenter or performer. The key lies in understanding and embracing the concept of presence, which is more about being fully in the moment than about trying to impress or entertain. Recognize that this fear is not your enemy, but a part of your humanity that can be harnessed for authentic connection with your audience. Embrace the practice of mindfulness, as it aids in staying present and focused, which can significantly enhance your performance. Furthermore, developing an appreciation for your own expertise, trusting your audience, and surrendering to the fact that your authenticity is truly engaging can liberate you from the grips of stage fright. By employing these insights and practices, you'll not only overcome your fear but also transform it into a powerful ally that amplifies your impact on stage.
Bradley Denis, MA is a powerful development coach who specializes in helping clients break through obstacles to become powerful presenters. He also teaches depth psychology as an adjunct faculty member at the Pacifica Graduate Institute. He is currently accepting new clients.
Kaplan, D. (1969). On Stage Fright. The Drama Review, 14(1), 60-83. doi:10.2307/1144506
Lindholm, C. (1992). Charisma, crowd psychology and altered states of consciousness. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 16, 287-310.