How to fight stage fright: 5 tips from a comedian

I felt my first twinge of stage fright at eight years old. I’d been performing since I was four, but it hadn’t yet occurred to me to be scared. I just knew that if I played “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on my tiny violin, I’d get a chocolate bunny afterward. (My first “concert” was on Easter.)

But four short years later, something changed. I was playing my violin in the same local recitals, but my feelings were decidedly more intense. Now I had a visceral fear for my reputation and a burgeoning pre-pre-teen terror of looking idiotic, as well as a primal terror of being eaten for lunch by a roomful of strangers.

This was the beginning of real stage fright, and I feel the same way today, at 32.

It hasn’t stopped me from performing. I gave up the violin long ago (I was terrible, you’re welcome), but at times in my twenties I was doing five sketch comedy shows per week. I love performing, but it comes at a price. For some of us, stage fright is a lifelong scene partner.

I have not overcome it, but I’m learning to dance with it, “backwards and in heels,” like Ginger Rogers.

Here are my hard-won suggestions for performing with stage fright. I hope they help you feel more freedom onstage so you can perform with more joy!

Talk to one person

While performing, if I get too focused on the number of people in the room, I just pretend I’m talking to my best friend, Leah, because she is easy to please and will laugh heartily at even my stupidest joke. When you talk to one person in your mind, but in action you speak to a room of people, they will feel the intimacy of what you’re doing, and you will mitigate your terror of being eaten by marauding strangers. Imagine a hundred Leahs laughing at your jokes and cheering for you!

Make your goal bigger than your fear

What do you want from your audience? If you are running for class president (I hope you do!) and using your comedic chops throughout your campaign speech (I hope you do!), consider that you are persuading your audience to do something (to vote in their best interests!). Keep this goal at the front of your mind. Every time you get nervous and feel stage fright pull you under, return to the goal you set of persuading your audience. You can write the goal at the top of your notes to look back on when you’re scared. Your fear will pale in comparison to your commitment to the thing you most believe in.

Focus on…your feet

When I look back at my experiences of terror onstage, there’s one constant: My feet scrunch up and I forget that I am standing on a floor that is holding me. I feel instead like a floating head, cut off from air. Feel your feet planted and spread out in your shoes. Think about your feet before you get onstage, and return to your feet when fear starts to claim you.

Focus on…your tummy

When I experience stage fright, my lower belly stops moving altogether and my shoulders hunch. As you practice your stand-up or your song in the school play, make sure that you are thinking about your lower belly. As soon as it stops moving, you won’t be able to have any fun. Fun is very hard without breathing! As soon as your lower belly inflates, your shoulders will straighten. From that lifted, open posture, everything is possible again.

Practice makes…a little less stage fright

The best time to prepare for stage fright is while rehearsing. In your preparation, factor in stage fright. Create an environment similar to the one in which you’ll be performing. Make sure the above techniques are with you as you practice for the big day. The more you face your fear, the less powerful it will feel, like shining a light on the monster under your bed and finding out it’s actually that pile of mismatched socks you forgot about.

A final word

You are nervous because you care. How wonderful to be doing something, anything, that gives you butterflies! Here’s to your exciting life! For more about what stage fright is and why it happens to good people, check out this adorable animated TED talk.

Inspire us with your stage fright triumph stories by tweeting us @GOLDcmdy!

Read Emma’s bio.