Overcoming stage fright: an anecdote

January 4, 2008

I am not a natural performer. I got my first guitar when I was about 14, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t play in public until I was 21; even then, it was an unamplified performance in the corner of a loud pub. I hated my voice, was certain my guitar-playing was lousy, and didn’t particularly rate my ability to remember the lyrics of whatever I was singing.

I did, however, have a huge back-catalogue of songs I’d either written or learnt to play. And, thanks to a bunch of friends who only owned right-handed guitars, an ability to play upside-down if necessary. Which stood me in good stead when, in an unfamiliar pub one pre-festival night, the local rock star – Charlie – heard that I played a little, conjured a beat-up six-string from behind the bar and insisted I play a few quiet tunes in the corner.

Charlie played at the festival the next day and, after 20 minutes or so, calmly announced to the 100-strong crowd that I was going to play a few songs while he took a break. At the time I was furious that he hadn’t, say, mentioned this to me. In retrospect, it was just as well; otherwise I’d have been staggeringly drunk as well as terrified.

I don’t have a good explanation for what happened next. What happened next was that I got up on the stage and rocked. Had Charlie still been on the stage, I would have blown him off it. The audience stomped and cheered and laughed and well, I’ve been a part-time rock star since then.

I learnt several things that day. Firstly, that the only hard part is getting on the stage. If you have even as little talent as I do, it’ll combine with adrenaline once you’re up there and see you through. Secondly, people are much readier to laugh at a singer than at a comedian. You can get away with the lamest jokes in a song (I point at the Saddam Hussein line in Tangled Up In Bob) and, perhaps because the joke is unexpected, you can get a laugh. And third, you don’t need a license to sing. You just need someone to persuade you that you either want or have to.

Any time I feel frightened of playing, I imagine Charlie at the mic putting me on the spot. I know that whatever crowd I’m facing, it’s not as scary as the first crowd. And if I can come through that ordeal with a round of applause and a few drinks bought for me, I’m perfectly capable of doing the same thing again.

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One Response to “Overcoming stage fright: an anecdote”


  1. Here’s a personal story about stage fright you might finsd interesting.

    Some years ago, I was asked to be master of ceremonies at a dinner in which legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry was to give the keynote address. It was a fairly small gathering of about 300 people at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas.

    Landry is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he played and coached in some of the biggest games in the history of the NFL. Not only that, but as a 20-year-old bomber pilot during World War II, but he flew missions over Germany. He had been shot at. Now that can scare you!

    As he delivered his speech, I was privileged to sit directly next to the podium.

    What I saw really surprised me.

    Tom Landry was speaking to an audience that admired and probably even idolized him. There was no reason to be nervous in the least. In their eyes, he could do no wrong.

    Yet, from my seat less than three feet away, I could see Tom Landry palms sweating and his hands trembling as he read from a stack of index cards containing his notes. He was literally shaking.

    Like millions of other people, it seems Tom Landry was not immune to stage fright, or halophobia.

    After the dinner ended, I got up some courage and approached him. “Coach,” I said, “would you mind if I asked you a question about your speech?”

    “That’s fine,” he replied.

    “Do you get nervous when you have to make a speech.”

    Landry smiled. “Almost every time,” he replied

    “How do you overcome it” I asked.

    His response was memorable.

    “I remind myself of what I often told my players,” he said. “Walk through your fear with faith. And you never let the fear of failure become the cause of failure.”

    That’s certainly great advice from a great man for anyone who has to deal with a fear of public speaking.

    And by the way, next time you get a little nervous because you have to make a speech, remind yourself that if someone like Tom Landry can get stage fright, or halophobia, the rest of us certainly shouldn’t be ashamed if we do too.


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