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Scared Speechless?

September 20, 2009

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 18, 2007; M01

They are three strapping men in mid-career — a salesman, a real estate broker and an officer in the military. All are at ease around a table in a casual setting, but put them behind a lectern or in front of a crowd, and their breathing quickens.

Their chests tighten.

Their voices start to tremor.

A quiet panic builds to a roar.

Stage fright is something that fells giants. These three men, tired of surrendering themselves to nerves, are sitting at a table in a basement in Alexandria. They have enrolled in Stagefright Survival School.

“Does anyone know the secret to tightrope walking?” asks Burton Rubin, the school’s director and a lawyer by trade.

“Don’t look down,” the broker says.

“Yes,” Rubin says. “Now does anyone know the secret to overcoming stage fright?”

Silence.

Then the salesman gives the correct answer: “Don’t think about yourself.”

* * *

“I read a thing that speaking in front of a crowd is actually considered the number one fear of the average person. Number two was death. Number two . That means if you’re the average person, if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

— Jerry Seinfeld, “I’m Telling You for the Last Time” (1998)

Fourth grade.

Give or take a year, that’s when you’re first forced to read aloud in class. It can be the seminal experience of feeling judged by peers or anxious about your performance. It’s the moment that can anchor a long struggle with stage fright.

Rubin, 61, remembers his moment vividly. He lost his lines while playing a narrator during a fifth-grade play. That one experience of panic and humiliation was enough to conjure a dread of public speaking that dogged him through law school. He graduated and went into legal publishing rather than face a law firm or courtroom setting.

“I had to duck into areas in which I would be safe from speaking,” says Rubin, who lives in Burke. “Eventually, I went to see a psychiatrist, psychologists and tried hypnosis, and nothing worked.”

He met Dr. David L. Charney, reputed in the Washington area for his work with phobias, and the two dissected the problem with an intensity that paid off for Rubin. Since then, the pair has collaborated on creating a metaphorical tool kit for dismantling stage fright. In the process, they’ve worked with members of Congress, the diplomatic community and on-air talent.

“Some clients were so highly placed in their fields that they took our breath away,” says Charney, 63, of Alexandria. “Others couldn’t even be coaxed down the stairs and into the classroom.”

They say they’ve unwound this problem — Rubin from the inside, Charney from the outside — and perfected a model for treatment in the form of the Stagefright Survival School, which launched last month and is a synthesis of two decades of work.

The school provides a 10-week course that begins with understanding the physiological process that accelerates stage fright, Rubin says. Onstage panic is ignited by catecholamines, a family of chemicals that includes adrenaline. When we’re in trouble, the body juices us full of them.

“As human beings, we cannot differentiate between physical danger and what we would call social danger,” Rubin says. “So if you have a thought that you will hurt yourself some way socially, your body only has the one set of emergency responses to go to.”

So the body thinks it’s being hunted by a panther instead of standing safely on a podium. The heart races to prepare for a chase that doesn’t come. The physical manifestations of this stress confirm that you’re embarrassing yourself — and therefore in social danger — so the body makes more catecholamines.

It’s a whirlpool of anxiety that spins faster and faster and feeds off itself. You can’t outrun it, Rubin says. You simply must face it. The key to blocking stage fright is to not think about yourself, to not trigger those pesky chemicals. Rubin and Charney have developed distraction techniques (such as maintaining a deliberately slow cadence) for people to displace thoughts about screwing up. Charney sometimes prescribes medications such as Xanax (to ease anxiety) and beta blockers (to still the physical jitters) as “training wheels” for people with extreme stage fright.

“We also use grounding techniques,” Charney says. “You grab hold of the podium and with your hands squeeze as hard as you can. You move the locus of attention away from your bad thoughts to your hand. Pain in your hand is better than craziness in your mind at the moment.”

* * *

“He is always waiting outside the door, any door, waiting to get you. You either battle or walk away. . . . Once you have experienced stage fright, you are always aware that it could be just around the corner waiting for you, just waiting for you to get cocky and confident.

— Laurence Olivier, “On Acting” (1986)

Businessmen and women pass on promotions to avoid the responsibility of leading meetings. Teachers who are czars of their classrooms are rendered inert in front of a PTA crowd. One slip on the stage can dismantle the confidence of seasoned entertainers. The moral of the story: Stage fright affects a mammoth swath of people, regardless of occupation or experience. As the most common social phobia, stage fright is so pervasive that there is no way to accurately quantify it, Charney says.

“I think we’re all performing in today’s global marketplace,” says Linda Hamilton, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan who treats stage fright and anxiety in performers, including those with the New York City Ballet. “It’s more competitive than it’s ever been. People don’t have any guarantees. So you’ve got occupational pressures, then you have the individual’s personality.”

In her last semester of college, Bahar Sadjadi, 32, was so nervous she blanked when giving part of a group presentation. Convinced that the problem was permanent, she dodged public speaking situations — until two months ago, when the Arlington resident started attending a chapter of Toastmasters International, a network of clubs for people to learn and practice speaking in front of a group.

“Usually, when we have one bad experience we try to avoid that for the rest of our life,” says Sadjadi, now a director of business development for an IT services company. “I had this thing formed in my mind that I can’t do it because I get nervous. With Toastmasters, you put yourself out there, and you have to do it. After a few times, it’s not so bad.”

Almost every hour of the workweek, Toastmasters clubs are convening across the area. There are more than 350 clubs here, with more forming every year. Sadjadi belongs to the Challenger Toastmasters Club, which meets on alternate Wednesday evenings at Ledo Pizza in Arlington.

There’s also the New Southwest Toastmasters Club, which meets in the General Services Administration building on D Street SW and draws workers from all over the city during lunch hour. On one recent Wednesday, April Humber deftly improvised a short speech on the topic du jour (astronaut Lisa Nowak’s tabloidy arrest), something she couldn’t have done before she joined Toastmasters.

“I would get butterflies, and a lot of times I would try to memorize my speech,” says Humber, 35, who lives in the District. Through Toastmasters, she learned about “pausing, relaxing, breathing and practicing. The more I attend, the more I become comfortable.”

During meetings, speeches are timed and evaluated by other members, and a speaker’s “uhs” and “ums” are counted. This model works for many but is not for everyone, says Charles E. Boyd, 34, president of New Southwest. The trick with Toastmasters is to find a club that’s supportive in its evaluations and makes you feel comfortable.

“It comes down to how people feel about themselves and if they want to take that leap,” says Boyd, a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security who lives in Fort Washington. “I don’t want to compare it to AA, but it is what it is. Everybody’s been there.”

* * *

“The first thing I remember was anchoring a five-minute cutout for the ‘Today’ show in Joplin, Missouri, and realizing I wasn’t taping a report — I was live on the air. I was so nervous I did three minutes of news in 68 seconds, and I’m not sure any of it was in English.”

— Todd McDermott, anchor for WUSA (Channel 9)

It all boils down to the fear of being judged.”

By not having a dialogic interaction, by literally prolonging the response the audience has toward you, you give them the right to adjudicate at a much more intense level,” says Peter Pober, an associate professor of communication and the coach of George Mason University’s forensics team. “All of this builds up.”

To defuse the buildup, Pober recommends addressing only one audience member at a time. Make eye contact, and handle a crowd of hundreds by focusing on individual faces.

But there is no quick fix.

After trying public speaking enterprises such as Dale Carnegie Training, Sterling resident Lee Harbin worked with Charney and Rubin when they were hitting their groove in the ’80s. She was in sales at the time and realized her career had “hit the ceiling” because of her stage fright.”

I learned to try to be excited about something rather than worried,” says Harbin, 49, now director of marketing for a high-tech computer sales company. “You can kind of flip that switch that sort of changes the focus and changes the way your heart beats.”

A combination of consultation and medication worked for Harbin, but she acknowledges that dealing with a fear of public speaking is an ongoing process. The fright can be assuaged only with patience, persistence and the abandonment of perfectionism (giving yourself permission to be a little nervous releases the tension that can snowball into panic, Rubin says).”

At the end of 10 weeks, the successful student is still unjelled Jell-O,” Rubin says. “We’ve mixed up the ingredients, but it hasn’t set yet. And the only way to do that is to practice.”

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