Stop that Stutter: 6 Steps to Overcome Presentation Performance Anxiety

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Recently we received a tweet from a follower of @Duarte requesting any advice for a stuttering presenter. They shared that, “The presenter is competent with the material but when presenting gets nervous and begins to stutter on stage”.

When this message was sent around the agency, I immediately had flashbacks back to my college days. I dreamed of being on stage as a musician, but my nerves were debilitating. During my first live musical performance I was so scared that I faced the microphone away from the audience and only looked at the band. I wore a hoodie, a baseball hat, and sunglasses in the dark. Luckily it was the nineties so I just looked like every other reclusive, alternative frontman out there. In reality, I was scared. As an introverted youth, it was hard to overcome my fear.

I struggled with my nerves until I met a professor who challenged me out of my fear. She was an eccentric lady who performed everything she did. Every gesture was as if it was in a play. The course involved a lot of performing in front of the class, which she knew I hated. She said to me, “Would you like to know the minimum you can do and get a passing grade? Or, would you like to beat this challenge down and become a great performer?”

My inner wannabe-rockstar stood up, I wanted it so very badly. So she coached me in a variety of techniques to help me overcome my nervousness before I went on stage and performed (presented). I can say that they truly worked for me. I’ve been a lecturer, instructor, musician, and presenter for over a decade.

Here are the techniques that work for me:

  1. Visualize Something Positive. Visualizing something that makes you happy is known to help you relax and thereby reduce stuttering. Imagine something that you love is in the room with you, or even keep a picture of something you love on the podium, or in your pocket. I’ve seen great speakers keep images of their children on their teleprompter because of this technique.
  2. Get Familiar. To this day, I visit a venue a few days before a show. I’ll soak in the details and reduce future distractions that can cause my mind to wander. I don’t know if it’s ADD, but I get those “Ooh shiny object!” moments when performing, and I seem to stutter after those distractions occur. So I try to familiarize myself with my surroundings, and if possible, rehearse in the venue so that it becomes second nature. This familiarity reduces heart rate and irregular breathing which are muscular triggers that can lead to stuttering.
  3. Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse. My professor used to tell us to rehearse our lines in a dark, quiet room, laying on our backs. This forces you to focus only on your voice and what you’re saying. Sometimes when I present, I’ll wear earplugs so that I can hear my voice, and focus on my projection and articulation. Perhaps you can’t memorize your whole presentation, but I would suggest rehearsing your opening and closing with this technique.
  4. Take a Deep Breath, or a Lot of Them. Before you go on stage, focus on the pace of your breathing until you can slow it down and reduce your heart rate. Once I get a controlled rate of breathing, I try to be conscious of it when I’m on stage. If not, the adrenaline kicks in, my heart races, and I talk so fast that no one can understand me.
  5. Pace Yourself. I mean actually pace – move around a bit onstage. A slow, steady walk across the stage can set a rhythm, that will help slow down your thinking and your speech, and reduce the confusion that often leads to stuttering. My instructor once made me recite four pages of a play while walking around the campus with her. I didn’t stutter once! But when I stood still on a stage in front of a large group, I stuttered and mumbled like a madman. The pace of my walking helped control the mechanics of it all.
  6. Get Some Sleep. For a long time, I tried cramming lines and content up the last minute of the performance. Staying up all night rehearsing and memorizing. I was a wreck. My professor told me, “Rehearse and study, but the night before, sleep, a lot!”

Hopefully those tips and techniques help you with your presenter woes and performance fears. I can honestly say the best way to get better is to present often. Work your way over the hump a step at a time, and keep practicing the techniques. Eventually you worry more about practicing the techniques than you do the performance, and it’ll be over before you know it.

Good luck!

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