Microphone in front of a crowd

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Articles about performance anxiety, aka “stage fright,” usually start the same way: Surveys reveal that we fear public speaking more than anything else, including death. Well, I’m pleased to report that’s no longer true. Snakes and heights preceded all other fears for Canadians, according to a 2015 survey funded by the Canadian Cancer Society. However, public speaking still ranked third on the list of things that filled us with fright, so I suppose there’s still work to do.

If speaking or performing in front of people freaks you out, you’re hardly alone. Stage fright is super common. To quote Mark Twain: “There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars.” Even people who enjoy public speaking, or are elite performers, get nervous. Adele told Rolling Stone, “I’m scared of audiences…. One show in Amsterdam, I was so nervous I escaped out the fire exit. I’ve thrown up a couple of times.” It hasn’t exactly held Adele back, and it doesn’t need to hold you back either.

Presenting in public is a high-value skill

Psychologists and biologists have developed a comprehensive understanding of performance anxiety: both what causes it and how to manage it. That’s a good thing, because the ability to get up in front of people is a skill well worth having. Communication skills rank second as the most important “soft skill” that employers look for, according to a 2014 survey of Canadian employers. In a 2015 analysis by LinkedIn, the most sought-after soft skill in the workplace was—you guessed it—communication. And that includes communicating in public, to multiple people.

Stage fright is a thing we can work with

If you have stage fright, you already know how it feels—the racing heart, the stomach butterflies—but here’s what’s actually happening in your body and mind:

Your sympathetic nervous system, which governs the flight-or-fight response, takes over and floods your body with norepinephrine and other hormones (Science, 2011). These hormones trigger a surge of energy and an increase in your breathing and heart rate. Meanwhile, the parts of your brain dealing with rational thought begin to go offline. This would be a perfectly healthy and useful response if you were facing down a saber-toothed tiger. In that situation, you need to default to instinct (e.g., run). Unfortunately, the fear response is less helpful when we’re trying to deliver a piano concerto or speech. Today, our fears are usually not about immediate, serious dangers. But we can perceive danger in being judged negatively or critiqued, and that can trigger the same old responses in us.

We can deal with this. Anxiety about giving public performances is eminently treatable; the main problem is a lack of information. In a 2011 study of 160 music students, half of the respondents admitted that they knew little or nothing about coping strategies for stage fright (International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health). Yet two in three expressed willingness to accept support and all of them wanted to learn more.

Five ways to slay the angst and own the show

Vector image of leaders speaking to a crowd

1. Cognitive-behavioural approaches

Cognitive-behavioural (“CB”) techniques are an effective way to reduce performance anxiety, research shows. “It involves engaging in different behaviours to evaluate the outcome in order to adjust your thoughts and beliefs,” says Dr. Lynn E. Alden, Professor of Psychology and Clinical Psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. These three strategies can help:

Create a “fear hierarchy”: a list of situations that make you anxious, arranged from least to most anxiety-provoking. Then tackle these situations one at a time. For example, “Maybe it’s simply speaking up in class, even if you’re not giving a formal presentation, just answering questions. Maybe next you join an organization where you can present and get feedback or the next class you sign up for is a public speaking class,” says Dr. Martin Antony, Professor of Psychology at Ryerson University, Ontario, and author of The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook: Proven, Step-by-Step Techniques for Overcoming your Fear (New Harbinger Publications, 2008). “You’re practising public speaking in different scenarios until it’s less scary.”

“Examine the unhelpful thoughts that contribute to your fears of public speaking, and look at the evidence in a more balanced and realistic way,” suggests Dr. Antony. “The odds of having some sort of lifelong terrible consequences from a class presentation are minimal.” The process looks like this:

  • Identify the thought that accompanies your anxiety; for example, “My presentation is going to go horribly, and I’ll never be good enough.”
  • Challenge that thought with questions like these:
    • What is the evidence that your presentation will go badly?
    • Why should the quality of your presentation determine your worth as a person?
  • Once you have recognized the flaws in your thinking, replace the original thought with a more helpful and less distorted one, such as, “I’ve prepared extensively for this presentation and have no reason to think it will go badly. Plus, it’s just a presentation; even if it did go badly, that wouldn’t impact my life in any major way.”

Those sensations of pre-performance anxiety you feel in your body? Just reframe them as excitement, instead of something sinister. Sped-up heart, fluttery stomach—these occur if you have performance anxiety, sure, but also if you’re about to meet Rihanna or accept a job offer.

Consider also that the physiological changes brought on by stress are, in many ways, specifically designed by evolution to improve performance (Emotion, 2014). Studies have shown that viewing anxiety symptoms as excitement and reframing them as helpful can improve performance in public speaking, musical performance, and sports. It’s easy to do: In one study, participants accomplished it simply by saying “I am excited” out loud before performing (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 2014).

2. Mindfulness-based methods

Mindfulness, a simple mental practice derived from meditation, is also super helpful for coping with stage fright. I’m a mindfulness teacher, so I’m all about using these techniques to handle uncomfortable thoughts and situations. And I have science backing me up. Research has shown that mindfulness can reduce anxiety (Clinical Psychology Review, 2013; Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2010). Performance anxiety is no exception. I feel anxious whenever I present in front of people, and my mindfulness practice is what gets me through it. Try these two strategies:

That’s my label for this ancient technique:

When anxious thoughts arise, mentally label them “thinking.”

When uncomfortable sensations in your body arise, mentally label them “feeling.”

When I get anxious about a presentation, I close my eyes and start labelling. The pounding of my heart and the butterflies in my stomach become simply “feeling.” Thoughts like “I’m going to mess up” or “people are going to laugh” or “sweet merciful Oprah why am I doing this?” become simply “thinking.”

When we label thoughts “thinking,” we don’t buy into their stories. When we label body sensations “feeling,” we can observe them without getting frightened or overwhelmed by them.

This takes 30 seconds and has four simple steps:

  1. Take a slow, deep breath. Fill your lungs, then exhale slowly.
  2. Open your attention to the sensations in your body. Let yourself notice whatever comes up: warmth, tingling, pressure, or the touch of clothing. There’s no need to evaluate the sensations as “good” or “bad.” This step needn’t take longer than one in-breath or out-breath. Stay with it longer if you like, but it can be that quick.
  3. Pay gentle attention to the sensation of air touching your nostrils as you breathe. Just like the previous step, this step can be as short as one in-breath or one out-breath.
  4. Re-engage with the world, without hurry. Open your eyes if you’d closed them and carry on with your day.

3. Practical prep strategies

One of the best ways to conquer stage fright: know your material and know it well. When it comes to public speaking, you can practise CB and mindfulness strategies until your brains leak out your ears, but there’s no substitute for preparation and understanding what makes a great presentation. I say that as someone who speaks in front of large audiences pretty often.

My best practical strategies for handling public performances

  • Practise Rehearse more than you think you need to. You want to be so comfortable with the material that it’s almost boring for you. Speak up: You’re talking quieter than you think.
  • Rehearse in front of a friend They’ll spot opportunities for improvement that you can’t on your own. Video yourself, so you can rehearse in front of you, too.
  • Embrace the pause It gives you time to collect your thoughts, sounds better than “um,” and adds dynamism to a presentation. As 19th-century English poet and essayist Martin Fraquhar Tupper said, “Well-timed silence hath more eloquence than speech.”
  • If you’re using slides, keep the text to a minimum People can’t read and listen at the same time. I use almost no text and keep my slides largely image-based. That said, images can be more powerful than words. And it’s fine to provide source references on a slide or in a handout.
  • If you want to have a written reference on hand, use note cards with bullet points Reading from a script sounds stilted; bullet points can jog your memory while letting you express yourself in a natural-sounding way.

4. Medication

Certain medications can reduce the symptoms of performance anxiety. If you’re interested in whether a medication-based approach may be right for you, talk with your doctor. “People like musicians or professional speakers might find that medications such as beta-blockers reduce heart rate and dampen down the anxiety,” Dr. Alden says. This may be a short-term strategy: “Sometimes the better approach is to expose yourself to the anxiety to learn to cope with it.”

It’s worth trying other methods first. Music students participating in that 2011 study found that “breathing exercises” and “self-control techniques” were as effective as medication (International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, 2011).

5. A fearless alter ego

Here’s a solution that comes straight from celebrity performers: create an alter ego. Beyoncé’s tough, fearless stage persona “Sasha Fierce” inspired both Adele and actor/singer Hayden Panettiere to create alter egos of their own as a way of combating anxiety related to performing. Adele’s is called “Sasha Carter” (a fusion of Sasha Fierce and June Carter), while Hayden’s remains a mystery. Hayden, if you’re reading this, I suggest “Acty McSingFace.”

Podcast review: The Public Speaking Power Podcast, by Ryan Mclean

Nazmul Sumon

Second-year graduate student, University of Windsor, Ontario

“Most of us are pretty uncomfortable giving a public speech. From a school presentation to a corporate sales meeting or a groomsman speech, it’s hard to avoid it completely. This podcast series encompasses unique ideas on how to deliver a better and more effective public speech without being so perturbed. Ryan McLean offers some great insights on the chemistry between the speaker and the listener and how to keep your audience engaged.”

USEFUL?  Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Slowing down, knowing when to pause, visualizing audience response in advance, and sticking to the core topic—these were my best takeaways from this excellent podcast series.

FUN?  Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The best speakers are like good storytellers who live in the moment of their story, McLean explains. It was fun (and challenging) to try to keep myself present during impromptu presentations—without being distracted by thoughts of the past or future.

EFFECTIVE?  Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of my biggest barriers with public speaking is filler words—like saying “actually,” “umm,” “ah,” etc., between sentences. I’ve had this in the back of my head lately and have tried to limit my use of these awkward mumblings.

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Article sources

Lynn E. Alden, PhD, R. Psych, Professor of Psychology and Clinical Psychologist; Director of Clinical Training, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Martin Antony, PhD, ABPP, Professor of Psychology, Ryerson University in Toronto; Author of The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook: Proven, Step-by-Step Techniques for Overcoming your Fear (New Harbinger Publications, 2008).

Beltzer, M. L., Nock, M. K., Peters, B. J., & Jamieson, J. P. (2014). Rethinking butterflies: The affective, physiological, and performance effects of reappraising arousal during social evaluation. Emotion, 14(4), 761.

Berger, G. (2016, August 30). Soft skills are increasingly crucial to getting your dream job. LinkedIn. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/soft-skills-increasingly-crucial-getting-your-dream-guy-berger-ph-d-

Brooks, A. W. (2014). Get excited: Reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(3), 1144–1158.

Canadian Cancer Society. (2015, July 8). Snakes and ladders top list of Canadians’ fears, just don’t ask them to speak publicly about it. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.ca/en/about-us/for-media/media-releases/ontario/2015/june/fearless-challenge-launch/?region=on

Express Employment Professionals. (2014, September 24). Prove you’re dependable and you’ll get hired: Express survey reveals most important “soft skills” for job applicants. Retrieved fromhttps://www.marketwired.com/press-release/prove-youre-dependable-and-youll-get-hired-1950377.htm

Hermans, E. J., van Marle, H. J., Ossewaarde, L., Henckens, M. J., et al. (2011). Stress-related noradrenergic activity prompts large-scale neural network reconfiguration. Science, 334(6059), 1151–1153.

Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 169.

Kenny, D. T. (2005). A systematic review of treatments for music performance anxiety. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 18(3), 183–208.

Khoury, B., Lecomte, T., Fortin, G., Masse, M., et al. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(6), 763–771.

King, C. R. (2012, December 18). Hayden Panettiere overcomes stage fright as singer. SFGate. Retrieved from https://www.sfgate.com/tv/article/Hayden-Panettiere-overcomes-stage-fright-as-singer-4129194.php

Moore, L. J., Vine, S. J., Wilson, M. R., & Freeman, P. (2015). Reappraising threat: How to optimize performance under pressure. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 37(3), 339–343.

National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2015, November 18). Job outlook 2016: The attributes employers want to see on new college graduates’ resumes. Retrieved from https://www.naceweb.org/s11182015/employers-look-for-in-new-hires.aspx

Studer, R., Gomez, P., Hildebrandt, H., Arial, M., & Danuser, B. (2011). Stage fright: its experience as a problem and coping with it. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, 84(7), 761–771.

Touré. (2011, April 28). Adele opens up about her inspirations, looks, and stage fright. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from https://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/adele-opens-up-about-her-inspirations-looks-and-stage-fright-20120210?page=3