“There are only two types of speakers in the world: 1) the nervous, and 2) liars.”

That’s what Mark Twain said about stage fright, and he should know. The celebrated author was also one of the most renowned public speakers of his era, circumnavigating the globe to deliver humorous lectures as far away as Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa.

Other great professional performers, ranging from actors to dancers to singers to ballplayers, have admitted to suffering from stage fright, or “performance anxiety,” as psychologists term it. So if you experience wildly fluttering butterflies before giving a sales presentation to buyers, it’s understandable.

OK, then, stage fright may be normal, but it still can get in the way of what you want to do. So what’s the best way to handle it before a presentation? People may advise you to just calm down, or take deep breaths, or pretend you’re talking to one single close friend or family member.

But according to recent research from Harvard Business School, what works best in dealing with stage fright is simply telling your brain that it’s something else, something positive: excitement.

Renaming the angst

The Harvard researcher, assistant professor of negotiations Alison Wood Brooks, had experimental subjects perform a variety of performance tasks. These ranged from singing to public speaking to solving a series of math problems.

Some of the participants were instructed to tell themselves “I am calm” before performing, while others were told to say, “I am excited.” A control group was not given instructions about reframing whatever feelings of anxiety they were experiencing.

Across the task set, Brooks found that the best performances – as measured by accurate delivery of a song, effective public speaking as assessed by evaluators, and the objective correctness of the math solutions – were turned in by those who had reframed their anxiety as excitement. Their degree of emotional arousal, as measured by heart rate, was also lower.

Threat vs. opportunity

She said it appeared that when the participants told themselves their anxiety was in fact excitement, what had first seemed a threat was converted into a perceived opportunity. Instead of viewing their presentation as something that was likely to bomb and embarrass them, they  saw it as a chance to shine.

Significantly, when the experimental subjects told themselves to calm down that didn’t change their perception that the situation they were going into presented a threat. To the contrary: Saying “calm down” to yourself seems to validate the perception that the upcoming presentation does in fact represent a menace.

Brooks, the researcher, issued one caveat about these self-statements. They work just before a presentation, but in the days leading up to it, you may want to admit to yourself that you’re nervous. Here’s how she put it: “Saying ‘I am excited’ immediately before a performance task was beneficial, but perhaps saying ‘I am anxious’ a week in advance would motivate effort and preparation.”

Cheap trick?

This technique may seem like something of a cheap trick. But that’s OK: The brain responds to the tricks you play on it. “Fake it until you make it,” “I think I can,” and other self-exhortations have been shown to work.

And you’re not trying to trick anyone else, just yourself, by repeating that your anxiety is actually excitement. Surely that’s a good cause – especially when it results in a bang-up presentation that helps get you the sale.

 

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