What I learned from Robert De Niro
Three years ago, I snagged an invitation to attend a tribute for Robert De Niro. I could list a lot of superlatives in praise of his acting chops, but I think we can all agree he is one of the greatest actors of his generation. He oozes gravitas and always seems to be in perfect control of himself. Seeing him in person was an illuminating experience, but not for the reasons you might expect... I discovered that Robert De Niro, the godfather himself, has stage fright.
This is actually unsurprising, because a lot of very fine actors, if not most of them, suffer from this affliction. It's just reassuring for the rest of us mere mortals to be reminded of it. Research shows that most people fear public speaking more than death. Think about that for a moment...
Standing up in front of others, as their undivided attention is focused on you, can be an intimidating experience. You start talking and the deafening silence closes in. You can feel your heartbeat (can everyone else hear it?) and your mouth is suddenly very dry. The panic you are experiencing makes your worst fears come true, as your carefully crafted notes begin to crumble and fall apart, while you stammer and rush through your talking points.
Personally, I don't have a problem with speaking in front of large crowds. I feel more self-conscious in small groups of people I know well. I tend to think there is greater pressure in small groups because people listen more carefully to your words and the stakes are usually higher. When you speak in front of a crowd, they are paying attention to your body language and how you make them feel, rather than actually listening to everything you say. They may catch a few key ideas, so presentations in front of large audiences should be simple.
Naturally, I assumed that Mr. De Niro would be used to audiences and wouldn't have a problem with this small group of people. However, what I saw that day changed the way I think about public speaking: I was seated close enough to notice that his hands were trembling, while other people were talking about him. When he first opened his mouth, I could see and hear the tell-tale signs of stage fright, but he quickly overcame them. Within seconds, he had become the De Niro I expected and I'm sure no one else even noticed. That's how good he is.
The moral of this story is that stage fright happens to the best of us. It's how you deal with it that counts. There are all sorts of tricks and techniques, but it's important to find some combination that works for you, because there is no silver bullet.
I recommend taking some deep (and discreet) breaths before speaking. Force yourself to breathe deeply at least three times. Also, realize that this experience is going to happen to you, no matter what; whether it's good or bad depends on your attitude. Although this sounds counter-intuitive, take a moment to enjoy the experience. If you're nervous about speaking, it is clearly an important occasion, so try to be in the moment.
Most importantly, great speeches and presentations are made within the first minute of opening your mouth. Even if your voice is shaky and your mouth is dry, your heart is hammering away in your chest and your memory is hazy, stick with it, soldier on and get through the first sixty seconds. If you can survive one whole minute, you will be fine. Remember: if De Niro can get through it, so can you.
If you really do start to panic before getting up to speak and you cannot draw deep breaths, try a couple dozen short, shallow breaths first, then exhale and take a deep breath. If you panic during your speech, pause at the next period in your notes. Take a deep breath and count a few beats. Look out at the audience and then continue. Although you are hyper-aware of the silence, most people in the audience will not notice or hold it against you. You can take as many pauses as you want, particularly to heighten a dramatic effect or let a point sink in.
Above all else, be prepared. Do your homework. Practice. Run your lines out loud. Then, by the time you reach the podium, all you have to focus on is yourself. Taking ownership of your emotions is the only surefire way to become a great public speaker. In the meantime, take solace in the fact that you are not alone. It happens to the best of us... even Robert De Niro.
Do you get stage fright? If so, how do you deal with it? Any tips or tricks you can share?