I hate public speaking

Last week we focused on teaching artist skills—specifically introducing your music from the stage. Welcome to part 2: the “I hate public speaking” segment.

Getting up close and personal with your audience

In working with musicians on teaching artist skills, the most frequent response is “public speaking terrifies me.”

Surveys show that people’s #1 fear is having to give a speech in public. They rank it higher than the fear of death. As Jerry Seinfeld says, this means that at a funeral “most people would rather be the guy in the coffin than have to stand up and give a eulogy.”

I certainly commiserate with those who have a fear of public speaking. I’ve had it and still experience it at times. Not so much with smaller groups anymore but with larger crowds.

The first keynote I ever delivered, I arrived at the hall to find they were using one of those “jumbotron” screens to help the people in the back be able to see. So while I spoke I had to stand in front of my Godzilla-sized image. Talk about self-conscious! That day I had all the usual symptoms—stomach distress, racing thoughts, shallow breathing—plus I invented a few new ones.

The fact that the talk went well wasn’t luck. I had worked hard on it. I’d learned how to improve my speaking skills with practice (including video run-throughs that I found excruciating to watch). And with more experience over time I became a better speaker. I gained confidence as I saw I was getting better.

But my fears didn’t disappear.

As with performance anxiety, it’s a matter of learning how to manage despite the fear: to focus your thoughts and harness your energy so you can get the job done. You need to feel the fear and act anyway. 

Anyone can do the work and get better at speaking.

(maybe you’re thinking) Why should I bother to work that hard at speaking from the stage?

Audiences today want and need a more interactive, personal, and immediate connection with artists. Even in formal concert settings. The Danish String Quartet concert I mentioned last week took place in Boston at Jordan Hall as part of the Celebrity Series—it’s the most prestigious chamber and recital series in New England. And DSQ talked.

Speaking can establish a rapport with your audience and help create in the hall a palpable sense of energized and positive listening. (That’s what happened in the DSQ concert) It’s wonderful to perform for an audience that is so “with you.”

And on a more practical level, being a performer with excellent speaking skills can make you more desirable to concert series presenters for bookings. Being able to introduce yourself and your music from the stage is a terrific starting point for more complex engagement activities and residency work. So speaking well can help your bottom line.

(in case you think) I want my music to speak for itself.

Imagine you have an uncle who is planning to come to a performance of yours. He never studied music and he doesn’t normally listen to your genre. In the past, he’s been bewildered by some of the repertoire you play. For him — and for many in your audience — the music doesn’t “speak for itself.” But with a verbal introduction, your Uncle might gain a handle on how to “aim his ears.” He might engage in a dialogue with the work—the back and forth of perceiving and making personal meaning of the work.

(or perhaps it’s still) I hate public speaking. That’s why I became a musician, so I wouldn’t have to express myself in words!

Try reframing: imagine the concert as a dinner party that you’re hosting.

You’ve invited people to your house. Some are friends, but people also brought their friends and partners you’ll be meeting for the first time. You cooked a wonderful meal and the house looks and smells great. At about 7, people start arriving. They ring the bell, you open the door. You smile and welcome them to your home.

Once everyone is settled, you let people know what’s on the menu and you say a little about one or 2 of dishes you’re serving. You tell the story about your grandma’s award-winning  lasagna recipe with the secret ingredient and how cooking it always brings her back to you and the memories of her warmth and her story-filled kitchen. You may feel a little nervous doing all this, but what you really want is for everyone to feel welcomed and have a good time. You’re happy to have them there.

You can take that same approach to speaking from the stage. Imagine welcoming your audience to your performance. Imagine that for any performance you give, no matter what the actual setting, that you create a feeling of an intimate house concert, and that you welcome people to the performance. Your remarks should help everyone feel “invited in.”

It’s rude not to introduce yourself

To me, it actually seems rude to play a whole program and not speak at all to the people who came. It’s like inviting folks to a dinner party and serving exotic food and not speaking at all to your guests—not welcoming them or telling them about the most unusual dish on the menu and how you chanced to discover it through your ex-boyfriend’s eccentric boss.

If you avoid speaking from the stage and engaging with your audience, you might as well say, “I don’t care if you need a little extra connection or if this piece is difficult to get a handle on the first time. You’re on your own.”

The audience is curious about you and wants to get a sense of who you are as a person. Your energy and genuine enthusiasm for the work will absolutely help them make a connection.

(you may be worried) My public speaking really sucks.

The truth is, with a little coaching and practice, musicians can improve their public speaking and their comfort level. It’s worth your attention because what you say and how you say it can help build a sense of community with your listeners. So don’t make the mistake of leaving this aspect of your performance unpolished. Just like your stage entrance, exit, and bow, if you work on your speaking — planning what you’re going to say and practicing — you’ll get better at it.

Tips for Better Speaking

Here are 4 tips to start improving your speaking today:

Project your voice: imagine you’re speaking to a person seated in the last row. This doesn’t mean shouting or straining. It’s about aiming your voice and speaking clearly. Practice speaking in the performance space and have a colleague go out and sit in the last row. Can they hear you clearly? If needed, ask for a mic.

Adjust your mindset: be present and welcoming. The attitude you want is one of open generosity. Think of the dinner party and that you’re welcoming these wonderful guests to a feast—the music you’ll experience together. Park you ego at the curb. It isn’t about “me, me, me.” It’s about your audience. Focus on turning them on to the music you love.

Watch your body language: when you stand to speak, unlock your knees and feel a springiness with your weight evenly balanced on the balls of your feet. Breathe deeply using your diaphragm (belly breaths).  This will help you calm down and focus. Make this part of your daily practice. Smile and stand in the stage light—step forward if needed. In rehearsals, ask a colleague to video you doing the introduction onstage and then starting the piece. Get a real sense of how you come across and what transitioning into “performance mode” after speaking is like. Do this more than once.

Focus your remarks: clarify what you plan to say. Write it out, practice it, video tape it, and do it for a trusted colleague or coach to get constructive feedback so that you can speak with the confidence that comes with preparation. It’s not that you need to memorize a script. You don’t want to sound like a robot. But you do want to write down what you’re planning to say and practice it so that when the adrenaline kicks in you can channel it appropriately.

(or have this thought) I get more nervous if I plan out what I’m going to say: I just want to go out there and be natural.

You may think that you’ll come across as more genuine if you improvise what you say on stage. But unfortunately, without planning and practice, most people come across as unprepared and unfocused, and our speaking is often full of “uhms” and “likes.” In a concert setting it’s easy to become distracted and self-conscious and for our body language to show our distress unless we’ve practiced enough to be able to deal with the inevitable nerves.

So don’t “wing it.”

Speaking from the stage is an important part of your performance so give it the attention it deserves! Audiences want and need—now more than ever—a way to connect and make meaning of their world. What you say and how you say it is the on-ramp to the art you present.

Next week: tools for what to say!

This week: What part of public speaking is most difficult for you? What have you found that helps?

I’d love to hear from you!

As always, I welcome your feedback and suggestions: reach me at Angela@BeyondTalentConsulting.com

And if you’d like to discuss your career goals, and find out how coaching can help you achieve them, let’s talk! I’m at Angela@BeyondTalentConsulting.com.

Looking forward to hearing from you,



Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well!

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