3 weapons to sink stage fright

Mister Roberts

Many naval officers did extraordinary things during World War II, including Iowan Thomas Heggen who served aboard the USS Virgo. But Heggen’s lasting contribution didn’t occur in the heat of battle. It happened in the quiet of his quarters as the 26-year-old penned his only novel, Mister Roberts.

Written at sea during 1944, the war classic was published in 1946, became an instant hit, and was later adapted into a Tony Award–winning play, an Oscar-winning film, a telefilm, and even a short-lived 1960s TV series.

Since the war had ended by the time his book rolled off the presses, Heggen’s publishers expected him to make public appearances to promote his work. Fighting the enemy in the Pacific Theater was one thing. But the shy Iowan was terrified at the thought of … gasp! … public speaking.

In The Almanac of American Letters, Randy F. Nelson recounts Heggen’s appearance at a formal luncheon in New York. Overwhelmed with stage fright, he stood speechless at the microphone. Finally, someone seated nearby whispered, “Perhaps you can tell us how you wrote your book.”

Suddenly spurred to action, Heggen’s tongue lurched forward, “Well, shit, it was just that I was on this boat …”


Good thing there are some techniques you can use to torpedo stage fright before it sinks your speech:

• Before. Remind yourself why you’ve been asked to speak in the first place: Because you have something to say. You have the information people want or need to hear. Make sure you understand who your audience will be and what they want or need to know. Then be prepared to give it to them—no more, no less. As long as you fill their needs, your speech will be successful.

• During. Although the language that stumbled out of Thomas Heggen’s mouth wasn’t appropriate to the occasion, the humor in the moment probably broke the ice. People appreciate humor and honesty. Instead of filling time with stale jokes, tell a self-deprecating story about how nervous you are. Most people can relate. Even if they’ve never suffered stage fright, they’ve been nervous about something. Once they make that connection, you’ll feel them rooting for you to succeed, and it will be easier to transition to your subject. Then think of your speech as a one-on-one conversation with a supportive colleague rather than a broadcast to dozens or hundreds of strangers. The more intimate it feels, the easier it will be.

• After. While it’s always good to make note of major mistakes and how you can improve, don’t dwell on the negatives. Doing so will only reinforce your view that you have reason to fear public speaking. Instead, focus on what went right: the applause, the congratulations and positive comments, successful Q&A moments, smiles and unspoken encouragement you detected from audience members during the presentation. Use these positives to boost your confidence for your next presentation.

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