What if you suddenly became intensely afraid of some integral part of your own career? In a recent interview with Fresh Air about her new film Obvious Child, Jenny Slate talked about her sudden-onset stage fright, a potentially career-killing phobia for a stand-up comic and actress. She says her fear, which took hold after she accidentally swore on Saturday Night Live and was subsequently dismissed from the show, lasted two long years.
Slate told host Terry Gross:
I never thought I would get stage fright. I love talking, and I love performing. And I’m hungry for it, all the time. But I think I got it after SNL … It’s usually nice to get up there as a stranger. I realized I didn’t like getting up there as someone whose thing that most people maybe knew was that I said a swear … I felt irritated and mad, and I felt like all this stuff is being put on me because I’m the girl that said this swear … And I got up on stage thinking that maybe people wouldn’t like me to be there.
And that just broke my heart. It made me act weird, and I got terrible stage fright. I just couldn’t remember how to speak to people anymore.
Slate finally got over her fear (and saved her career) via hypnotism, something she tried because she loves things that “seem magical.” If you’re dealing with your own fear of public speaking and are skeptical of hypnotism, two recent studies have some alternative fixes for handling stage fright.
Instead of telling yourself to calm down, tell yourself to get pumped. Research by Allison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School suggests that changing the way you talk to yourself before you’re in the spotlight can make all the difference. In a series of studies, Brooks and colleagues assigned people some potentially scary tasks, including solving some math problems and singing karaoke using one of those games that scores you on how well your voice matches the correct pitch. Before each task, some of the people were told to try to calm down; the others were told to get excited. The people who were told to get psyched performed better in both scenarios than the people who were told to calm down.
Remind yourself that stress is good for you. Another recent paper in Clinical Psychological Science adds to the idea that changing the way you think about your public-speaking nerves can improve your performance. In this study, researchers asked people to give a brief talk about their own strengths and weaknesses. Before they spoke, the researchers explained to some people, but not others, the benefits of stress: Your pounding heart and sweaty palms simply mean that your body is getting ready for action, sending more blood to your muscles and oxygen to your brain. Those who were briefed on the benefits of stress were less freaked out by the speech, judging from results of both cardiovascular measurements and self-reports from the participants.
One last nonscientific idea: Watch “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On.” Nothing seems so bad when you’re watching Marcel the Shell With Shoes On.