How to Handle Stage Fright

I speak in public; I am a preacher. Most weekends I speak 4 times to a total audience of a couple thousand people.  Public speaking is the normal person’s greatest fear — so say the statistics. I have stage fright, yet I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. It’s been said that Johnny Carson had stage fright before every show. He kept paper clips on his desk so he could fiddle with them during the program.

For my first two years as a pastor, I was sick to my stomach before I preached (not barfing, but the other end… sorry… ). So while everyone was preparing to start our church services, I was in the bathroom… Ugh.

I have not fully conquered stage fright; but I’m able to manage my fears and get the job done. Here are some hard-won tips:

  1. PREPARE, PREPARE, PREPARE. You can reduce a whole lot of fear through thorough preparation. Know your topic, know your main points. I am a manuscript preacher and like to write out my whole sermon. That doesn’t work for everybody — you have to find what works for you. There is no excuse, however, for a preacher, or any public speaker, who wings it. Lazy prep is our unpardonable sin. Prepare well, especially…
  2. FOCUS ON YOUR OPENING. If you don’t want to write out your whole talk, at least try writing the opening. The hardest part is getting started. Once you’re going, you’ll do great. Spend extra time figuring out your exact opening words and sentences. This may include a thank you to whoever introduced/invited you. It may include a Scripture verse (easy, because it gives you permission to read, thus getting your voice properly modulated). Whatever gets the ball rolling, prepare it well.
  3. USE HUMOR. If it suits your topic, use humor. Make sure your funny story contributes to your overall theme — a random joke will come across as just that. But if you have a funny illustration, story, or opening that is RELEVANT to the group, use it.
  4. ARRIVE EARLY TO NAIL DOWN LOGISTICS. Come long before the crowd arrives. Stand behind the podium. Look across the empty chairs. Figure out how to arrange your notes. Do your sound check. Find the clock. Know your stop time (don’t look at your watch unless you want the whole audience to follow suit). Find out how you will be introduced. Find out where you will stand/sit before you speak. That last thing you want is to have to pick your way around instruments, or to discover you have no podium for your notes, right when you’re beginning to speak. No surprises. Do not come late; do not make yourself feel rushed. Yikes! Getting comfortable with your surroundings well before speech-time relieves a lot of anxiety, thus freeing up mental and emotional harddrive space for your talk.
  5. DON’T TALK ABOUT YOUR STAGE FRIGHT. Unless you’re giving a talk about having stage fright, do not mention it to your audience. It’s manipulative. All they can do is feel sorry for you (or disgusted). You are the speaker… you are there to bless your audience, not to unburden yourself. “S..s..sorry, b-but I’m nervous…” only undercuts your speaking credibility.
  6. DRESS COMFORTABLY. I wear a button shirt and nice jeans most of the time. Anything else feels like a costume to me. The real me wears jeans. However, it’s not your call. Honor your host by honoring the dress code for the event. Find out, and then dress as comfortably as you can within those parameters. Wear comfortable shoes. I read an old preacher who said that your attire should not be an issue… Your audience should focus on the content of your talk, not on something you wore or didn’t wear.
  7. PRAY. Before I walk to my pulpit, I pray two prayers: “Casting all your cares upon him, for he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7), and “Lord, fill me with your Spirit, because I can’t deliver what these people need without your help and power.”

You can’t erase your fears, but you can rise above them and bless people with your words.

What other tips can you add to help people overcome stage fright? What has worked for you?

Courage

Little did I know that my first experience in public speaking would be such a disaster. I froze. I didn’t know what to say. So I mumbled, “Thank you,” and ran off the stage. My stomach tied itself in knots. I could only look down. It seemed like hundreds of people were laughing at me. I was humiliated.

FearI was five years old. The scene was the annual kindergarten Christmas play at Portage Park School, a public school in Chicago. Except I didn’t know it. I was the emcee, except I didn’t know that either. All I knew was that for weeks I memorized some words about “the Christ child.” I had no idea what I was in for.

 

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