performer on stage with large audience

7 tips for overcoming stage fright

By BBC Maestro

Stage fright, or performance anxiety, can be crippling. Whether you have to do a speech at your best friend’s wedding or you’re making your stand-up comedy debut, you don’t want to let nerves ruin the experience. 

Luckily, we’ve collated some advice from comedy legend Billy Connolly, who knows a thing or two about how to overcome stage fright. 

What is stage fright?

First things first, what exactly is stage fright – and why does it happen?

If the mere thought of public speaking increases your heart rate and makes your palms sweaty, you could be experiencing stage fright. You may notice a feeling of fear or anxiety that settles in when you’re faced with performing in public. It could be getting in front of colleagues to deliver a presentation, singing karaoke, or acting in a play – no matter how big or small the performance, it can affect people in many scenarios.

In some cases of stage fright, our fight or flight (or freeze) response can kick in – making us feel nervous, shaky, and even foggy-headed. So, it can be very distracting if you’re about to head up on stage. For others, the wave of nervousness may be plaguing them for days, weeks or even months before the event and can start to knock their confidence. The good news is, there are a few ways to kick it.

How to overcome stage fright

First things first, stage fright is very common, and most people aren’t immune to it. Even those people you may think public speaking comes naturally to – like politicians and famous performers – who have done it a million times before, have still experienced heightened nerves before they face an audience.

Sir Billy Connolly says, in his BBC Maestro course on Comedy: “I’ve never known anything quite so frightening as going up on your own and doing it. It’s terrifying. It’s like singing to your aunties when your uncle has a party. It doesn’t matter how big you are in show business. You’re still terrible when you’re singing to your aunties.”

Part of that feeling, he explains, comes from the fact that because you’re the one giving the speech, doing the presentation, leading the class or performing the stand-up set, you’re automatically supposed to be good at it. Your audience assumes that you’re the best person for the job and that fact alone is terrifying. He says: “The terror of comedy is inherent. It’s the same as the terror in drama. Going on stage to do anything, you make the statement that you’re better than the audience at what they do. When you’re a comedian, you’re making a statement that you’re funnier than anyone else in the room.”

But, he promises, once you’ve done it once, it’s exhilarating and addictive. So, with that, let’s find out how to conquer your fears and learn how to perform in front of people, whatever the situation. 

Billy Connelly comedian in a theatre

1. Visualise your success

When you’re nervous about a performance or speech, it can be easy to catastrophise and imagine all the things that could go wrong: you’ll forget what you want to say, no one will laugh, you’ll make a fool of yourself, for example. 
 
If you go into it with a negative mindset, you’re setting yourself up to fail. Instead, try visualising what success looks like. If you’re doing a stand-up show, that might mean people laughing at your jokes. If you’re doing a work presentation, it could mean lots of thought-provoking questions to show people are engaged. 
 
Close your eyes, and visualise that success. Focus on the positives rather than what could go wrong, and you’re one step closer to making it happen. 

Go on stage knowing your punchline, but not knowing how you’re going to get there. Know the crucial information that you need in your set-up, and find your way through the story. That way you’ll tell the story, rather than reciting it.

Sir Billy Connolly, Comedian

2. Practise, practise, practise

You’re less likely to be nervous if you know your material. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing stand-up, acting in a play, playing live music, or giving a speech – it’s important to know what you’re going to say. 
As Billy Connolly says: “You’ve got to do some writing. There’s no point in going on stage with nothing. You’ve got to have a destination, some idea of where you are headed, it’s unrealistic to succeed on pure adrenalin. Nobody’s that good.” 
You’ll most probably want to write out your entire set – covering your opening and closing scenes, the stories you want to tell, those grounding punch lines and how you connect them all together. Billy Connolly recommends practising out loud rather than in your head, so you can know how it’s going to sound to your audience.

But also – and here’s the scary part – he recommends that once you’ve written out your script, you throw it away: “If you want to write your routine out in full, that’s absolutely fine. It can help you to make sure that your set-up has got all the necessary information. But once you’ve written it, throw it away. Stand-up isn’t a speech. It’s real, it’s messy, it’s chaotic. Go on stage knowing your punchline, but not knowing how you’re going to get there. Know the crucial information that you need in your set-up, and find your way through the story. That way you’ll tell the story, rather than reciting it.”

If you know the bare bones of what you want to say, you’ll likely seem more comfortable on the stage. There’s no need to be too rigid in your approach though – it’s always a good idea to leave a little room for improvisation. 

3. Be prepared

Whatever you decide to write, it can be helpful to have some notes to hand on stage. That way you can refer to them in case your mind wanders or goes blank. Throughout his career, Billy Connolly has written down notes and put them on the bar stool that’s on stage with him: “I put lists on my bar stool. When I go for a drink of water, I look at the list and sometimes I don’t go for the thing I was going to go for. Instead, I go for ‘drunk woman on the bus’ or ‘guy joins the army’ and it just flies off in a different direction.”

You could write bullet points on your hand, or on a piece of paper that sits on a stage prop. If you’re presenting from slides, you can add speaker notes to help make sure you hit all the key points you need to say. 

audience at comedy show

4. Get yourself in the right frame of mind

Preparing your speech or performance will help to calm your nerves, as it no longer feels like you’re heading into unknown territory. But even with notes to hand, you may still feel the familiar flutter of nerves right before your performance. That’s why it’s a good idea to have a toolkit of actions or prompts that will help you feel confident.

Billy Connolly has honed his pre-gig routine over the years: “I do the same thing every time. I look at my notebook, which has nothing in it. There’s odds and ends, and… bits and pieces. I have cups of tea. I don’t know what it is about tea, but it makes you feel lovely. And I play my banjo and I relax. Everything falls into place.”

Develop your own toolkit. You could practice deep breathing before you take to the stage or take a short walk or do some stretching – whatever it is that helps you keep those nerves at bay. 

backstage dressing room

5. Think about how you’ll start

Walking out onto the stage or getting up in front of lots of people is often the most nerve-wracking part of the performing process. Once you get into the flow it’s easier to find your feet.

So, it makes sense to think about how you’re going to start your comedy set or speech in advance. Billy Connolly explains his process:

“I get worried because I don’t know what I’m going to say first. I try to think of what I should say first, and I say it in the dressing room. And it never works. And then the noise dies down – the noise of the audience. And he [the host] says, ‘ladies and gentlemen, please welcome… Billy Connolly!’ And the first statement comes roaring into my head – what I’m going to say when I walk on. And then, the walk to the microphone – I feel great. I get elated. I’m very light on my feet. And I usually say a silly aside – ‘shut up’ – something stupid, boyish. And then get on with it. And that’s how it always works.”

So, think about how you want to get started. Will you say “hello” and introduce yourself? Will you make a joke to break the ice? Will you tap the mic and say “testing… testing”? Whatever it is, having a plan at the back of your mind will ensure you get through those first few nerve-wracking moments, and the rest will follow naturally. 

The recovery from a bad gig is up to yourself. Just look in the mirror and say ‘we nearly did it!’. There’s fun in everything. Don’t worry about it – you’ll be funny again tomorrow. Just lick your wounds and get back to work.

Sir Billy Connolly, Comedian

6. Dying is inevitable – so embrace it

If you’re an aspiring comedian, one part of the job you need to accept early on is that every comedian will ‘die’ on stage. Probably more than once. Dying here refers to flunking a gig. It may be that you know you didn’t give it your all or you told a joke that didn’t land.

Whatever it is that didn’t go to plan, remember that it’s happened to many of the greats, like Billy Connolly. He says: “I’ve died the death many times. Especially at the beginning of my career… I made a lot of mistakes and died the most awful death and had to leave. It’s bound to happen to you.”

So, it’s important to understand that it’s likely to happen to you too. But even more, it’s important to know how you’re going to stop it from happening again in the future.

Don’t let it put you off. Instead, look at it as a learning opportunity. As Sir Billy explains: “Preparing against dying the death is simple. Take notes of where you died last time, and don’t do it again. You should know your audience better. Earlier in your career, you don’t know your audience as well and that’s what happens. The recovery from a bad gig is up to yourself. Just look in the mirror and say ‘we nearly did it!’. There’s fun in everything. Don’t worry about it – you’ll be funny again tomorrow. Just lick your wounds and get back to work.”

It’s all part of growing and getting better as a comedian – and good comedians should always be looking to improve what they do on stage. 

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7. Learn how to connect with your audience

Most people are scared of public speaking or stand-up comedy because they’re worried that they’ll make an idiot of themselves, and the audience won’t like them.

So, if you can connect with your audience, you’ll put them at ease, and you’ll put yourself at ease too. People want to like you. They want you to do a good stand-up set, or they want you to deliver a wedding speech that strikes the right balance between emotional and funny. If you can connect with them from the get-go, they’ll be on your side.

You can do that through body language and eye contact, as well as a little research. Think about what your audience will respond to, and work that into your set or speech. As Billy Connolly puts it: “A thing I used to do when I was on tour… I’d get to a town, say it was Manchester. I would go for a walk, looking in the shop windows, see what people are buying, see what they’re not buying, look around, see what’s in the movies, what’s in the theatres. And you’d walk on [stage], and you’d say something about it and they immediately react. You know, they think they’re talking to somebody who knows what they’re talking about.”

Think of your audience as friends and it’ll immediately help to put both you and them at ease.

Public speaking can be daunting – there’s no denying it. But there are things you can do to help ease your stage fright, making you feel more prepared and confident to deliver the best speech, song, comedy set, or presentation you can.

Want to find out more tips from the experts? Explore Billy Connolly’s Comedy course for more insights on how one of the comedy world’s greats gives the performance of a lifetime, every time. 

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