As you are taking careful steps onto stage, the curtains open, revealing a bunch of curious faces. Then, all excitement fades, replaced with existential dread.
At its worst, communication apprehension, commonly referred to as stage fright, is a fairly common affliction. The exact way it’s expressed varies between people, from shaking and stuttering to being completely unable to get in front of a crowd and speak. It is the wall that stops many people from reaching their full potential.
“I don’t experience stage fright anymore,” said junior Abby Strawn, a political science major. “I took a great speech class in high school, and my teacher taught me to block it out.”
Although the celebrities that perform countless shows always seem to have it together, many have had the experience—or still do. Many people believe solving stage fright is as simple as practicing or going through with the performance. And in some cases, it is.
“In my opinion, the only way to conquer stage fright is to get up on stage and play,” said singer Taylor Swift when asked about her history with it. “Every time you play another show, it gets better and better.”
However, the person might become more nervous at the idea of performing in front of a larger audience, especially if one of their peers or someone important to them is in the audience.
A possible cause for this feeling can be due to the spotlight effect, the belief that people pay much more attention than they actually do and that your mistakes are broadcast clearly to everyone. The reality tends to be that even when you’re the center of attention, people won’t notice the one note that was off-key or the small mistake in the corner of the portrait. They’re even unlikely to remember you tripping over every other word of your speech.
In a study done in 2010, Timothy Lawson explored this theory. College students were asked to wear embarrassing clothes, including a t-shirt with singer Barry Manilow on it. While the students believed 50% of their peers would remember this, only 23% did.
“I think when someone mispronounces a common word, stutters a lot or says ‘um’ a lot, it’s pretty noticeable,“ said Strawn. “Otherwise it’s really all in the speech giver’s head. People won’t remember a mistake unless it’s big and the speech or show was boring.”
Although the phrase “practice makes perfect” can be considered a cliché piece of advice, it has some merit. Yoga and breathing regulation, activities designed to relax the mind, are also notable ways to minimize the anxiety.
Before too long, speeches, performances and practicals will begin, and the next time that feeling stirs within you, the important thing to remember is to enjoy yourself. If a mistake is made, it’s a lot more likely that the end of your social existence will only be within your mind.
“You shouldn’t worry much about what other people think…With this in mind, you should just relax and try to do your best,” says Thomas Gilovich, a researcher who studied the phenomenon in 2003. “Know that if you become nervous, you probably shouldn’t worry about it.”