Reading Aloud: Dealing with stage fright

Stage fright is one of the most horrible things about reading. It can be debilitating and, what’s worse, it can cause a self-feedback loop that will make the symptoms manifest in different ways. Some people’s knees shake, others can’t breathe, some people forget everything they know… it can be horrible.

People suggest things like, “imagine the audience in their underwear.”  I suspect that what that exercise actually does is force you to focus on something besides what is happening to your body. Stage fright is basically a triggering of your body’s fight or flight reflex. You get a boatload of adrenalin pumping through and, unfortunately, there’s diddly you can do about that the first couple of times.

What you can address is how to manage the symptoms.

As much as I would like to offer you a magic system to keep the adrenalin from pumping, it’s an automatic reaction and until you’ve done enough of these so that your body no longer reacts as though it is under threat, you sort of have to put up with it.

So… what we’re going to talk about is how to manage the symptoms so that you aren’t crippled by them.

In fact, the Bene Gesserit mantra against fear, from Dune, is an excellent one.

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

When I get stagefright, which still happens sometimes, it tends to manifest with shaking hands, difficulty breathing, and a feeling of weak knees. Sometimes, sweating accompanies these. Those symptoms are pretty common, so I’m going to talk about how to face your fear and permit your fear to pass over you and through you, so that only you will remain

Trembling hands

The first thing to know is that probably no one else can see your hands trembling.  Now, if you have to handle something, that shaking will be amplified and thus, visible.  A piece of paper can rattle like it’s in a windstorm.

How can you handle this? Focusing on your hands will make them tense and make the trembling worse. It sucks. But you can mask it. Even if the story is very short, I have extra paper so that I am holding more weight. That additional paper does two things.

  1. It is stiffer so it doesn’t react as much to the trembling.
  2. The extra effort needed to hold the page also allows you to transfer the tension to another activity.

No paper? Depending on the circumstances, I’ll tuck my hands behind my back, hold them in my lap, or hide them behind the podium when they aren’t in use.

Difficulty breathing

While waiting to speak, slow down. Take a minute to inhale to the full expansion of your ribcage. Blow all the air out.  Now just let the next inhalation happen. It will feel more or less normal. Not only does this gets more oxygen into your system, which can help with the adrenalin coursing through you, but it also can release some of the tension that’s keeping your chest tight.   You may have to repeat a couple of times.

While speaking, inhale at the end of each sentence or, at minimum, at the end of each paragraph. Don’t gasp. Just take a moment to inhale and it will simply look like you are thinking. Breathing is natural. Take your time. Slow down. Breathe.

Weak knees

I hate this one.  When your knees feel weak, you wind up shifting your weight from side to side to compensate. It’s part of the urge to flee. It also is distracting and makes you look indecisive. You can’t make your knees feel less weak, but you can manage the symptom. If you have a podium, put a hand on it to stabilize yourself. If you have a chair, sit so you don’t have to deal with the knees.

If you have neither, take some time with your manuscript to mark when and where you will shift your weight. Doing this puts it under your conscious control, instead of leaving it to your body’s urge to flee.


Wear something with layers, like a jacket over a t-shirt.  Darker colors are less likely to show sweat.  Or if you have real problems you can always do the theatre trick of sticking panty-liners to the underarms of your shirt. No, really. I’m serious.

Now… I’m going to show you two videos. One is me speaking normally and in the other, I’m in the full grip of stage fright.

This is part two of a series, but you can see my full body and how I’m using my hands. I’m comfortable with my material. You don’t need to listen to more than the first 30 seconds or so to see that.

In this next video, I’m completely freaking out and pulling every piece of my acting background to try to look calm. Note that I’m having trouble breathing, particularly when you compare it to the first video. I keep looking down, as though I have something written. I don’t. I’m doing that to mask the need to breathe and to make it look like a thought. I use my hands, but anytime I’m not gesturing, I’m touching the podium to stabilize because my knees were shaking.

You will have to watch an ad. Sorry about that. I start talking at the 2:37 mark.

See what I mean? I’m masking a whole lot of emotional adrenalin right there and if you don’t know what to look for, it works pretty well.

Whatever your symptom is, don’t focus on it and let it worry you more. Just know what that symptom is, and think of a way to mask it until you no longer need the mantra. You can’t stop it, but you can acknowledge it, let it pass through you, and deal with the symptoms.

Fear is the little death. But you have control of everything else.

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5 thoughts on “Reading Aloud: Dealing with stage fright”

  1. One of my rules for public speaking is to speak much more slowly than you think that you should.  The tendencyis to speed it up when you’re nervous.

    1. Absolutely. In the earlier posts, I hammer that, but it might have been a good point to touch on again. I usually suggest that 150 words per minute is a good average for reading aloud.

  2. one of my helpful tips is to print whatever you are reading at 24 pt or larger. you won’t be squinting or bending over talking into your paper that way

    1. Definitely a helpful tip. In one of the other installments of this series, I talk about how you can then cut the pages to fit inside your novel/anthology/magazine/collection so that audiences can still see the cover. It gives the illusion that you are reading from it without actually making you read from that tiny type.

  3. Well, you’re a good actor, because I saw that speech live and thought you were reading from notes.

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