Stage fright

Overcoming Performance Anxiety & Stage Fright

1. What Do You Do to Tame the Story Learning Willies?

Know your story – know the sequence, what happens to who and when it’s suppose to happen. Be prepared to present the words intuitively.

Outline the story, or visualize a vivid picture for each part of the story, with all the essential elements & most important descriptions in the order you wish to use them. Include as many of the other of the senses possible.

Prepare, Practice, Rehearse – Because It’s Fun & Gives You Self-Confidence. The knowledge that you are well prepared helps diminish nervousness. Memorizing is probably not a good idea. There is a danger you will be concentrating so hard on making sure the story is perfect that you won’t “know” the story. The more you do, the more you can do. That way, even if you are too nervous to consciously pay attention to what you’re doing, you can open your mouth and the story will fall out. And it’s the story that’s important – you have to trust it to do what it can do. The storyteller helps it along, but that a story decently told (i.e. rehearsed and known) can do a pretty good job all by itself. Tell stories; get up over and over again no matter how nervous you are and do it. Eventually, you get used to the feeling – once a state of crisis goes on long enough it becomes normal – you will start to get more control over the situation.

Start telling with material you know well to gain the confidence that the story will be there, and that you will be able to handle glitches. Learn the stories as if you lived them. Become the story, forget yourself, let the story flow. Find a friendly practice audience; a mirror won’t work: no feedback. Tell to each listener using your own words. Give each listener your personal attention for at least the time it takes to deal with one item on your list. Make eye contact. Watch how they react to each statement you make. The more attention you give to a person, the more attention they’ll give to you.

2. How Do You Set the Story Space or Stage?

Take care of yourself and prepare yourself way before the show. Be comfortable with yourself before you see the audience. Don’t get your hair done just before you tell or wear new clothes so you won’t worry about how you look. Be comfortable in your skin and your clothes.

Environment. Check out the space for seating, lighting, sound. Feel the space, look around and take in everything you see. Once you know the space you own it and you can use its energy. Still nervous? Take a deep breath and go meet your listeners.

3. What Do You Do To Tame The Willies On Stage?

Fran Stalling’s Secret Formula to Avoid Death In Front Of An Audience.

  • Hit Your Spot – Pick it in advance, front and center. Keep your mouth shut until you get there. No apologies, no explanations. Walk out there briskly, confidently. No cringing, no slouching, no wringing of hands. Just walk.
  • Loosen Up – Are your knees locked? Bend them a little. Is your throat frozen? Hum very softly to clear it. Unclench your fists and teeth.
  • Make Eye Contact – Gaze around the audience looking into their eyes. Don’t look at bad vibration sources. Identify good listeners and tell your story to them.
  • Begin – Breathe. Keep introduction and explanation as brief as possible. You may want to memorize some opening lines but from there you can wing it. Remember what you love about the story, and enjoy.
  • Endings – Take your time, but not the next speaker’s. Be on, be good, be off . Practice a clean punch in or closing comment. “And that’s the story of __,” will do. Thank your audience <.

Audience Is Your Friend. Don’t be scared of your audience. Your audience is (usually) your friend. They want you to succeed. Many of them are also nervous about talking in front of people, will be relieved that it is you, not them up there, and admire the way you pull everything off. There is no such thing as an audience of three hundred people, just one hundred groupings of three. Pick a group in each area of the auditorium and make eye contact with them, then expand it to more groups and gradually you’ll feel like you’re talking personally to everybody there. Sweep your gaze from one side of the audience to the other so you are not staring in one direction or at one person. Recognize that despite appearances some in the audience are not paying attention anyway! Storytelling on stage is not a natural venue. Remember where it starts. Some folks get together. They chat. Then one of them says, “Oh! That reminds me of…” Or the child calls out, “Tell us the story of…” Or or or… Bring telling back to its roots.

Build the intimacy first. Let go of yourself and think about the people you are telling for. Pay attention to them and you won’t be thinking of yourself. Ask questions, make faces, play with them. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you are paying attention to them. They are each a separate person. Try making contract with the individuals. You have 350 kids?

Start early! Still nervous? Take a deep breath and go meet your listeners. Then you’ll have ‘positive storytelling experiences’ to remember. Remember you are in partnership with your listeners, in co-operation with attentive, imagination people with whom you share the goal of advancing knowledge and understanding. Remember to smile: it’s the only way the audience knows you like them. Some steps to engage the audience: enter the audience space, get as close to the group as you can, look at faces, introduce yourself, engage them, give them a voice.

Stepping towards the group or even into it helps you be aware of your environment. You can determine just how close you can get as you move around, and how far away you can move.

Mistakes. Making mistakes is a natural part of performing. You are going to screw up at some point, so don’t worry about it. You can tell a story letter perfect a hundred times in a row and then on the hundred and first telling blow it completely. The most important thing to keep in mind is to stay calm and keep going. It’s no big deal. Ignore the little mistakes and fill the listeners in if you forgot to say something important. Most of the time, no one but you knows what you were going to say anyway. If you do leave out something very important, and you get to the part of the story where the audience needs that info, put it in. The last resort can be: ‘now something you don’t know is…’, or ‘and what I haven’t told you yet is…’ – and then on you go. How are they to know that you just rewrote the story? Never admit to a mistake (at least not during the performance.) As far as your audience knows the way you told the story is the way you meant to tell it. Imagine some of the things which might go wrong and know the strategies you will use to deal with the problem. Remember that most of the things which are not right will probably only be noticed by you. If things do go wrong, that’s great, because it’s an opportunity to learn. No problem!

Breathing. Deep breaths help to control the symptoms of nervousness. If you are nervous, scared, feel like crying, then think about your breath and control it. Breathe deeply in through your nose & out through your mouth. Once you have your breath under control, you can do anything. Prior to the telling or whenever your heart thumps loud do equal breathing exercises: breathe in for a count of 4 or 6 and breathe out for the same Slowing down the breathing will help to control nervousness.

Nervousness = Positive Energy = Excitement. Nervousness and excitement are adrenalin…use it to flame the passion of telling. A certain amount of nervousness in a new situation is probably just a normal reaction to moving out of your comfort zone. Think of it as a challenge & direct it positively. Pat yourself on the back and say something like: “Wow, I’m taking a step forward. Good on me! Let’s see how well I can handle it.” Have fun. If you don’t like what you have to say, no one else will. Everything you feel shows. So feel good. An audience wants to feel good too. Don’t worry about being nervous. The more you get into your presentation, the more you’ll forget to be nervous. That nervousness you feel before going on is good. That is your performance energy. That is what will get you up on stage and into your story. If you don’t feel it, if you don’t have some energy inside you, your performance will fall flat.

The energy is an instinctive reaction to stress. The body knows something is about to happen and is preparing for action. Your mind determines how you react to those stimuli. You can say, “my stomach is tense, my heart is pounding, my palms are sweating … I must be scared. This is scary. I don’t want to do it!” Or “my stomach is tense, my heart is pounding, my palms are sweating … I must be excited. I’m psyched. I’m excited. I want on that stage right now. Here I go!” Your emotions are under your control. With some practice, you can control whether it is fear or excitement running through your head before going on. You may want to consider a ritual form of preparation: warm up your mind, body & voice with vocal exercises, stretches, Tai Chi, or a sacred mantra.

Other people live for the adrenaline rush, work it into their performances, and use it to bound into their performance. That adrenalin rush can help you to focus, stay sharp, and really respond to the audience.

Another exercise: several times a day, sitting in some quiet place, imagine that you are preparing to perform–your turn is almost up. Imagine as clearly as possible–employing all your senses–the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings associated with these pre-performance moments. Be as specific and detailed in your imaging as possible. If there are stairs to walk up, get that into you mental image. Do likewise with the smell and feel of the microphone, the sound of the mc’s voice–every detail you can think of. When you have placed yourself as fully as possible into the pre-performance context, imagine yourself feeling completely confident–fearless. Imagine how great it would be to feel that way, rather than scared. Then continue on with the imagined performance: you present your material–solidly, and with confidence. Imagine the smoothness and grace with which you will make your presentation. Imagine your heart keeping a steady pace instead of racing. Imagine your breath deep and full, not shallow and shaky. In other words, paint an accurate and detailed mental image of every step of the process–the way you’ve experienced it so many times before. The only thing different in this image is the grace and confidence you now embody. The point is not to imagine a standing ovation and instant fame. The audience’s reaction is completely irrelevant to this exercise.

Be as fully ‘present’ as possible, seeking a balance between the moment-to-moment three way interchange between yourself, the story and the audience and a slight detachment that allows you to monitor and adjust your responses. Don’t get overwhelmed by the size of the group.

Each audience member is still an individual there for the program. While you’re watching them, & right before you see them, remind yourself that they’re there to have a good time & you’re going to see that they get it. Actually the larger the group, the more response they can give you. That can really boost your energy while you’re riding it.

Performance begins , concentrate on your story elements & go with the flow of whatever happens. Your audience is rooting for you.

Don’t Give In To Fear. Remember your positive storytelling experiences. How you reacted last time will have a great impact on how you react in the future. If you say “I’m scared. I can’t do this”, in the back of your mind, you’ll be saying, “this is really scary. I can’t do it. I know I can’t do it, because last time I tried, I couldn’t do it. So it must be scary.” And the fear grows with every attempt. Push through the fear and it lessens: “Last time I could do it, so this time I can do it.” Experience the feeling of coming out of yourself and joining the listeners. That is even more rare than just disappearing. Trust in the power of story itself. If you see yourself as the key player in the teller-story-listener equation, you’ll be nervous. The teller is not the mother but the midwife. Allow nature to do her work. Assist her where you can and if you must. Let the story come naturally and see the marvel that is born. The excitement of uncertainty for the teller can be a pleasure rather than a panic, and if the teller enjoys it then so will the audience. It isn’t easy just to throw away one’s rules – one often isn’t aware of them, but exploring doing what one considers “stupid”, “worthless” or “embarrassing” is a good start and is invariably hysterically funny and enjoyable! Such experiences can be not only liberating but reveal powerful tools for powerful telling/performance. Play to what you know are your strengths. Feel the fear & do it anyway.

4. What Are Some Other Thoughts & Resources?

Remind yourself that you are in partnership with your listeners. You are not performing alone but in cooperation with attentive, intelligent people. A basic aspect of this partnership with your listeners is that what you communicate does not come only from you but from a current of truth and insight that flows through you. To be a storyteller, tell stories; to be a better storyteller, tell more stories.” Join a storytelling group and work out your willies there. While sitting in the audience you will learn that the audience is your friend. Once you realize that standing in front of a group of people is not a live or die situation, you will relax. Use a storytelling stick. Pick it up when you tell and hand it to others when they tell. Perhaps this will help to connect you to those legions over the centuries who have told stories (and used walking sticks as they walked from castle to castle or village to village). Perhaps this will remind you that you are telling a story and that you have an ancient responsibility to audience and story. You might find this carries you well beyond the awareness of nervousness.

Suggested References:

  • The Unstruck Bell by Eknath Easwaran. (This book lists lots of mantras and describes the whys and wherefores.)
  • The Storyteller’s Resource Guide by Bill Mooney and David Holt. (This book has chapters dealing with stage fright and directing the energy toward the audience)
  • Tai Chi Reference; The Fatigue Artist by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

5. What Makes Good Storytellers Great?


  • Tell stories of the type or in the style that suits their personalities the best
  • Develop an almost instant rapport with the audience
  • Have a highly developed sense of flexibility and timing
  • Really like what they are doing
  • Are comfortable in front of their audience and engaging with them
  • Have stage presence (confidence, assurance, audience rapport, a sense of knowing they are good and could take the audience with them wherever they go)
  • Able use of pacing, facial expressions, and pauses (often a pause and a lifted eyebrow and a look all around the audience can accomplish more than any number of words.)
  • Tell from the heart, to the heart – honestly, openly, and without trying too hard

This document is an edited version taken by kind permission from the Storytelling FAQ, hosted at Tim Sheppard’s website.

Visit the Storytelling FAQ for answers to an enormous range of Frequently Asked Questions about many aspects of storytelling.

Go here for tales to watch

Go here for a list of all tales included on this site

Go here to receive an e-mail notification when new tales are added

Permission to tell outlines my views on copyright

For those who are teachers: Telling stories in the classroom: basing language teaching on storytelling