In a few days time I’ll be treading the boards in a major role for the first time in nearly a decade; flexing my acting muscles, channelling my inner luvvy and rekindling my passion for the theatre. But here’s the thing: I’m terrified. Excited, yes, but truly terrified. I’ve been plagued with anxiety dreams (you know the type – the play’s been changed at the last minute, you don’t know the lines and it’s curtain up in 10 seconds – cue blind terror), there’s a constant feeling of unease in the pit of my stomach and just the thought of stepping out on stage on opening night is enough to bring me out in a cold sweat.
And yet I know that nerves are in fact an important part of the performance process. I know that channelling nerves in the right way can add energy and sparkle to your performance. I know that if you let the nerves take over, they can seriously derail your performance and erode your confidence. Put into an agency context, nerves that aren’t managed well can stop you pitching effectively and have a direct impact on how much new business you win.
So from a business perspective it makes sense to learn how to keep your nerves under control and to stop them taking centre stage. Here are five pointers to help you start mastering those presentation and performance jitters:
1. Don’t fight the fear
Accept your fear rather than trying to fight it. Getting yourself worked up by wondering if people will notice your nervousness will only heighten your anxiety. Understand what’s in your control and what’s not. Like many people, I suffer from the dreaded ‘nerve rash’. It starts as a cluster of tiny red pin pricks on my chest, then cruelly creeps upwards to my neck and face, unfurling into an angry red declaration of my inner state. It’s a dead give away; an unavoidable symptom that shouts “Look at me! I’m so NERVOUS!”. It’s taken me years to accept that there is absolutely nothing I can do to control this. I will always go red when presenting and performing. Even when I feel calm and prepared, the nerve rash will pop up and try to derail me. Accepting this is out of my control has been nothing short of liberating. So what if I go red?!
2. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse
Actors aren’t expected to go on stage without having rehearsed their part, so why do we so often leave little or no time for rehearsing workplace presentations? There’s nothing more nerve-wracking than feeling unprepared for a big pitch or presentation. Know your content, master the smallest details, then practice saying your presentation out loud, getting feedback if you can from a friendly (but honest) colleague. The more you prepare and rehearse, the less likely it is that your nerves will take over on the day.
3. Transform nervous energy into enthusiasm
Turn those jitters into focused enthusiasm. Instead of obsessing about the fact that you’re nervous, tell yourself that you’re excited. Tell your mind to put a different spin on what your body’s going through. When you feel nervous you’re thinking too much about potential threats, when you should really be focusing on the potential opportunities. It pays to embrace your nerves and be positive. Even if you don’t believe it at first, saying ‘I’m excited’ out loud increases authentic feelings of excitement and leads you to be more enthusiastic, persuasive and relaxed when presenting.
4. Make the candle flicker
If, before you present, you start to feel your pulse quicken and your breathing become fast and shallow, take yourself off to a quiet place and try the flickering candle exercise. Imagine there is a candle a metre in front of you. Take a deep breath in and then slowly exhale, making the imaginary candle in front of you gently flicker. Repeat this exercise several times to help get oxygen to your brain and to relax your body ahead of your presentation.
Nerves can do all manner of strange things to our faces. Smiling can make all the difference. It increases endorphins, replaces anxiety with calm and gives the impression of confidence and enthusiasm. Everyone can smile. Try it. It works.
Needless to say, I’ll be revisiting these pointers over the next few days and as I wait anxiously in the wings on opening night. I’ll be the crazy-looking cast member muttering ‘I’m not nervous, I’m excited!’ and smiling like a lunatic in an effort to keep the nerves in check. I know it’ll be worth it. Excited, not terrified. That’s what I’ll be aiming for.
(Shameless plug: come and see how I fare – I’m playing Rosalind in As You Like It at Putney Arts Theatre, 20th – 24th June, with outdoor performances on 1st, 8th and 9th July. http://www.putneytheatrecompany.org.uk/productions/2017/02/22/as-you-like-it/)