To be an effective public speaker, students need to understand a variety of elements, including use of appropriate tone, natural gestures and effective eye contact. If stymied by stage fright, all of their hard work might feel for naught. In this interview, professional actors and teaching artists Victoria Reinsel and JJ Johnson share with the Ford’s Education team some of their best strategies and advice for teachers and students to calm nerves and speak with confidence.
As professional actors, as well as teaching artists, students and teachers can look to you for expertise about performance anxiety. What tips can you offer teachers who teach public speaking on their own?
Victoria: It’s important to encourage preparedness from the start. Being prepared is the number one way to overcome stage fright.
JJ: I agree! I’d also add that teachers should take note of their own relationship to stage fright and always remain encouraging. Find ways to keep that student connected to something that is comforting to them—breathing, friends, allies, teachers. I encourage any teacher to customize their coaching to the individual student, finding out what makes them unique.
What's your EXPERIENCE WITH STAGE FRIGHT?
JJ: Once at a church program there were youth groups singing. I was about 4 or 5 years old and sitting next to my mother when I got the notion that I wanted to sing a song too. I had no idea what to sing, nor had ever sung in public. After asking if I was sure, my mother mentioned to the M.C. that I wanted to share a song. They eventually invited me to the front, announced that I wanted to sing a song and I froze! They handed me the mic and I couldn't move. My mother came forward and stood by me and we sang a song together. My mother was a very shy and quiet person at that point, so I'm sure she was so angry at me. She never showed it though.
Victoria: I still get a little bit of stage fright—sometimes a lot, depending on what I’m doing. I try to follow my own advice and channel the nerves into something helpful and positive. Plus, I’m always way less nervous when I feel fully prepared, so that’s motivation for me to put in the hard work.
What does it look like to be prepared?
Victoria: It’s probably things teachers are already doing. Focus on the following:
- Understand: Make sure students understand their speech fully—if it’s not an original speech, the prep work includes looking up unfamiliar words, paraphrasing, and historical and cultural contextualization. You cannot perform a text well if you don’t understand it or why it’s important.
- Connect: Make sure students connect emotionally to the speech. It’s important for a speaker to choose (or write) a speech about something that personally matters to her. Passion for the topic can mitigate stage fright because it might be more important to the speaker to share her passion than it is for her to allow her fear to overrule her.
- Rehearse: Set rehearsal goals and give students opportunities to practice for each other so they get comfortable performing in front of others. Encourage (or require) them to practice outside of school in front of others (parents, guardians, neighbors, friends, siblings, babysitters, etc.).
- Create a rehearsal ritual: Just like teachers have “do now’s” at the start of every class, or do a morning meeting at the beginning of every day, they should establish a physical, vocal, and mental warm-up ritual for the start of speech rehearsal. The comfort of a ritual can ease pre-performance jitters and create a state of readiness or “energized relaxation.”
We love the idea of a rehearsal ritual. What can teachers include?
Victoria: A warm-up ritual should include:
- stretches for the body and face to release tension
- visualization to promote mental focus, calm, and empowerment
- something physical to energize your whole body
- vocal work such as tongue-twisters. Ideally, the tongue-twisters are silly and encourage laughter, which is a great way to release tension in a potentially scary pre-performance moment.
I’m sure you’ve worked with students who are enthusiastic about the process of studying oratory but terrified by the thought of performing in front of an audience. What advice do you give students to calm their nerves?
JJ: I tell them that they are not the first nor the last to get nervous. Regardless of what happens, the audience is in their corner and wants to see them succeed.
Victoria: It is totally normal and okay to feel anxious before performing. When we’re nervous about a performance, it’s because we care. Instead of caring about my own performance, I redirect my care to the audience. As a speaker, it’s my job to clearly convey my text and to convince the audience to take action on my subject. I can also harness my nerves by visualizing how awesome it will feel once I have accomplished what I’m about to do.
We often hear students say, “What if I forget a line?” How can a teacher respond?
JJ: Take your time, breathe and run the lines in your head. If you can't remember it still, make up something that sounds good.
Victoria: Unless it’s a really famous line (like Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”) or the student signals that they messed up, the audience probably won’t know. And if they do, so what? Everyone in the audience is human and has made mistakes.
JJ: Above all, BREATHE.
Victoria: It’ll be over before you know it. You’ve got this!
Victoria Reinsel is a teaching artist, a local actor and co-founder of Brave Spirits Theatre. She specializes in Shakespeare and classical theatre and teaches middle school through adult students. In addition to Ford’s, she has worked with Shakespeare Theatre Company, American Shakespeare Center, Orlando Shakespeare Theater, and others.
JJ Johnson is a teaching artist and local actor. He recently appeared in a commercial for Tyson's Watch & Jewelry Exchange. He also wrote his first full-length play called "Wannabe," which received its first workshop by a group of local actors and director, Paige Hernandez.