Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Ask the storyteller: Stage fright!

So often when I tell people I'm a performing storyteller they respond with, "I could never do that! I'm terrified of talking in front of people!" How do you deal with stage fright is one of the more common #askthestoryteller questions so here are some of my thoughts. As always, your mileage may vary and I'd love to know what you think.

Here are the questions I have been asked about stage fright.

  1. Do you have stage fright? Of course. It doesn't happen with the same ferocity that it did when I first began performing, but it still happens. Fear of public speaking is one of the most common phobias, so it's easy to be overwhelmed by it.
    By this point in my career I rarely have significant stage fright but I remember what it was like and I feel great sympathy for anyone who suffers from it.
  2. How do you deal with it?
    The first thing I do is remind myself that no one out there wants to hurt me. They are on my side. Storytelling is a forgiving art.
    I try not to focus on the fear but on the relationship with the audience. I remember to love them.
    I remind myself that if I make a mistake I know how to deal with it.
    I remind myself that this is my passion, my life's work and that it is a gift only I can give to this audience in this moment.
    I remind myself that I have done this before.
    I remind myself that the things I am feeling that I associate with fear (rapid heartbeat, tight breaths, tight stomach, sweating, etc) are all also associated with excitement. Maybe I'm just excited about the story I'm going to tell.
    Once I've reminded myself of these things I close my eyes and take some slow, deep breaths. As the oxygen floods my body my heart rate begins to slow. The sweat cools. My throat and stomach loosen. The oxygen suffusing my cells tells every part of me that there is no reason for fear. I am safe. 
  3. What if that doesn't work? What if you make a mistake?
    Then I make a mistake. It's unlikely the audience will storm the stage and tear me limb-from-limb. In fact, it's likely they didn't notice. If I can and if it's necessary I just weave the mistake back into the story. I say something like, "Now what you didn't know, what I didn't know and what the hero certainly didn't know is...." It sounds like elegant craftsmanship. If the audience noticed the mistake or if it's a mistake I need to own up to like forgetting a big part of the story and it's something I can't just weave in, then I smile and say something like, "The funny thing about storytelling is that sometimes storytellers make mistakes. I forgot to tell you that..."
    Then I take another deep breath and keep going.
  4. How can I get over stage fright?
    Practice your material in front of a loving audience.
    Remember to breath. Ask yourself regularly if you're breathing. All that oxygen helps immensely.
    Remember your audience is on your side.
    Afterwards ask someone you trust to tell you what went well. Don't ask for criticism, just praise. As you gain more confidence feelings of stage fright become less important.

I'd love to know about your experiences with stage fright. How do you cope with it? What helps?

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. good read Laura...
    I relax hours before showtime...
    I get someone to drive me if possible or arrive quite early...
    I want to walk on the stage around the auditorium,
    Get familiar with the environment-
    most especially the sound system.
    I am always a bit nervous.
    I tell my self it's because I care about my performance...
    If I'm not I have taken the gig for granted and will not do as well.
    My confidence is bolstered by the amount of preparation I have put in!
    Then remind yourself of that and Let the show begin!

  2. Good suggestions. I have been telling stories professionally for 26 years now, and I have only recently begun to experience stage fright. Scary Stuff.

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  4. Thanks for the validation Laura. These are all of things I tell not only myself, but my student storytellers. I have taught them how to "fix" the story if they leave out something very important; it really eases their nervousness.

    I have witnessed some of my students handle mistakes like a pro! I always make class time to discuss their fears; it really helps them know that someone is willing to listen. I also share my less than stellar moments on stage since they think I never get nervous!

    I always tell them that they teach me as much as I teach them. :)


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